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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

Andrew Mitchell, accused of being a bully, was bullied in turn. There was tremendous journalistic laziness in the reporting of his alleged remarks to police officers at the Downing Street gates. A few months ago it was considered a national scandal that the police were always slipping information to the Murdoch press. Now they planted a story in the Sun and no one minded. Yet what they did was a breach of trust for which they should be sacked. How can people who work in Downing Street now be confident that the men and women at the gate really are protecting them? It is a well-known tradition for police to concoct evidence against the accused. If you read the police log of the incident, you will see that the words attributed to Mr Mitchell are the sort of thing that people think nasty toffs would say to them. It is as crude as if a gang of dim toffs were to testify that a policeman had said to them, ‘Allo allo, what’s all this then? You’re nicked, sunshine.’ Yet no one questions the police account. Lord Justice Leveson should summon the Sun and the police to give evidence on oath about how they communicated with each other.

Nor did anyone investigate why it is that cyclists who work there every day (despite being a caste piously accorded approval by modern official culture) have more difficulty than cars in going through the Downing Street gates unimpeded. No one pointed out that the police frequently behave in a ‘by the book’ manner which does tend to incite profanity in all but the most refined mouths. As someone who has moved round Whitehall for more than 30 years, I notice a great change for the worse in the manners of the police. In Parliament, in particular, they used to appear to have been specially chosen for their Ealing Studios good humour, comic moustaches and smart appearance. But in the age of ‘security’, where they are usually in shirt-sleeves, often kitted out preposterously in bulletproof vests, sometimes armed, and always talking to one another instead of looking at the public, they have grown more surly, obese and bureaucratic. At first I felt quite prepared to condemn Mr Mitchell for being arrogant, but the self-righteousness of the reaction against him is so overwhelming that one must come down firmly on his side. I feel as I do when I read those notices in railway stations which tell one not to assault the staff: one had not thought of it before, but suddenly it seems like a good idea.


I must, however, report an example of enlightened officialdom. We live fairly near Bewl Water reservoir and sometimes walk there. The public, us included, bring their dogs, and many, as in towns, collect their dogs’ messes in transparent plastic bags. They are then annoyed to find that there are no bins in which to drop the bags, and so resort to hanging them on the branches of trees, as if they were satanic Christmas decorations. A recent notice from management pointed out that dog turds are natural products which the planet can endure: all you need to do is kick them off the path and into the undergrowth.

The worst thing about interviewing people as a journalist is the technology. There is always a decent chance that the recorder will go wrong. I recently had to interview the Labour leader Ed Miliband. As I had just bought a new voice recorder, I thought it prudent to try it out first, with my daughter playing the role of Mr Miliband and me interviewing. When the real thing came, I pushed what I thought was the button to record and out came our test effort. ‘So Ed,’ I heard myself saying in, for some reason, the accent of an American confessional interviewer, ‘how come you’re so much less glamorous than your brother?’ ‘It’s because I am made of plasticine,’ replied my daughter, who is interested in the Wallace and Gromit parallel. Luckily, I realised what had gone wrong and snatched up the machine, making loud gabbling noises until I could work out how to turn it off, so I don’t think Mr Miliband heard the actual words. I then pressed the right button, and the interview proceeded in an orderly fashion, properly recorded. I felt remorseful, because Ed is not, in real life, less glamorous than David. Unlike most politicians, who are smaller than they seem on the television, he is taller, better-looking, more humorous and more commanding in the flesh. David, though intelligent and presentable, has that thin film of self-imagined divinity between himself and the rest of the human race that is often inserted by a spell as Foreign Secretary. Ed is more self-doubting, more inquiring, more human.

Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but i’ve noticed a growing boldness in badgers. They scoff strawberries in our garden and last week I came across one beside its sett in broad daylight. I attribute this to the vast expansion of badger numbers under the Labour government, which refused to cull them and so spread TB in cattle and ensured that hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds became rarer. Labour decided to privilege badgers at the expense of the rest of the animal kingdom. Mr Brock was allowed to wipe out Mrs Tiggywinkle and Babbitty Bumble. At last this is changing. Owen Paterson has just arrived at Defra and the opponents of culling have exhausted their legal challenges. Two trial culls are going ahead. As someone who once put down 600 parliamentary questions on the subject, Mr Paterson is an expert, and can discourse learnedly on the success of culls of white-tailed deer in Michigan and of possums in New Zealand. The need to cull badgers resembles the need to cut the deficit — it must be done, and people will moan less if it is done quickly.

Four of us, aged between 61 and 55, went for an idyllic walk in Corfu last week. Our kind hosts drove round to pick us up at the other end. Searching for us, they asked two young German girls if they had seen four walkers. ‘Oh yes,’ the girls replied, ‘those elderly English people.’ Et in Arcadia ego.

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