The government is in a panic. Its criminal justice policy is in chaos. At the same time a Chief Constable publicly denounces them for pandering in their decisions to the demagogue tabloid press. And he’s right.
Last Monday the one-time Stalinist Home Secretary John Reid demanded that a judge’s sentence be reviewed within hours of the court handing it down. The Home Secretary has sent a emissary to see if the US policy of revealing details of where convicted child abusers live — Megan’s Law — should be adopted here. Yet last year the government had ruled that out. The News of the World say the government is supporting its campaign to get such a law introduced to Britain.
Tony Blair and the Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, think the Human Rights Act should be amended because of “concerns over the way it was working”. Just a day before Falconer made his comments about amending it, the Sun launched what it described as a “proud” campaign to abolish the Human Rights Act altogether. Did Falconer jump to the Sun’s bidding? Or did the Sun and government get together to cook up the campaign against the Human Rights Act?
New facts are emerging about the extremely strong relationship that exists between the Government and the tabloid press, the Murdoch press in particular. According to former Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie (speaking on Newsnight, 20 June), the current editor of the Sun is regularly wined and dined by both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor or the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Why? Because both Blair and Brown know that the Sun and the News of the World play a major part in forming and manipulating “public opinion”. They fear them. They are terrified of their hostility, their censure. The result is that a few employees of the American citizen Rupert Murdoch have more weight in determining what the government does than the Parliamentary Labour Party!
The tabloids put a populist, right wing spin on news stories. They try to appeal to the lowest, easiest and most in vogue prejudice they can. They do this to try to sell more newspapers.
They feed on people’s insecurities and fears, building them up until they are out of proportion to the sometimes real dangers from which those fears spring.
In the case of the Human Rights act, right-wing hysteria was generated from a Probation Service Report which was misinterpreted as blaming the Human Rights Act for the release of a rapist on parole. In fact, the report blamed the probation officials for not understanding the Human Rights Act!
The same kind of manipulation is behind the renewed press campaign around child abusers. The News of the World has revived its campaign to introduce a form of Megan’s Law into the UK only since the conviction of Craig Sweeney who brutally attacked and abused a young child and who had been staying in a hostel for convicted sex offenders near to where the child lived.
The tabloids aren’t interested in the reasonable case that most experts on the field make about the unworkability and counter-productive nature of a “Megan’s Law”. All serious commentators on the issue know that the law would force many child abusers underground, and by making them even more difficult to monitor and control, make them even more dangerous to children.
Tabloids when it suits them contemptuously dismiss experts. They will refer to them as “so-called experts”, who — unlike the tabloids — don’t know how victims feel. It is, of course a cynical game. The tabloids show how little they care for the victims of crime by harassing them as they go about getting their stories.
Home Office lawyers were so appalled by the prospect of the UK government “reviewing” the Megan’s Law policy, that the government has had to retreat somewhat, and they are not immediately considering introducing Megan’s Law. They may have been forced to remember that there were vigilante riots in Portsmouth and South Wales when offenders’ names and addresses were published by the News of the World in 2000. These included a violent attack on a paediatrician by vigilantes who thought the word meant “child abuser”.
Even Terry Grange, the chief constable of Dyfed and Powys — and no doubt other knowledgable policemen — is worried about the government making up policy on crime to suit the tabloid press. He has denounced the government’s motives on such proposals as the Violent Offender Orders and the treatment of foreign criminals and paedophiles.
“The reality, as I perceive it, is that the only people with any real strategic intent and understanding on where they want to go and the will to be ruthless in getting there is the News of the World. The government is attending meetings at the behest of a newspaper and then altering its approach overnight.”
Astonishingly the Blair government seems to believe that the best way of formulating criminal justice policy is to jump when the tabloids crack their whip. Why?
Because this government has no clear principles, no political roots and no commitment to tackling injustice or inequality. They simply do the bidding of UK capitalism — and that can often be capricious, arbitrary and right now, in the form of demagogic tabloid headlines, it is seriously reactionary.
That means this increasingly demoralised government effectively has no criminal justice policy of its own! It looks set to continue to flail around, hopping from one half-baked initiative to another, making contradictory statements, convincing no one.
This, like so much else about the New Labour government, points to the crying need for the trade unions to begin to put the Labour Party in order.