What image comes to mind when we think of Britain today? I was moved to contemplate this question after reading the Prime Minister’s inspiring treatise on British values, which seemed to involve ‘being quite nice’ and not referring to other people as kaffir and then trying to blow them up. Fair enough. I suppose — as an image of Britain, Sonny and Cher jihadis bringing their arcane and vicious sandblown squabble to the streets of London is perhaps a more modernist take on John Major’s vision of an old maid cycling to morning communion through the early morning mist.
I suppose cyclists should be somewhere in our new vision of Britain, but I don’t think they’d be on their way to communion; they’d be dressed in Lycra and self-righteousness, screaming obscenities at motorists and pedestrians. A morbidly obese chav cramming a ton of cardioburger down his vast gullet while waiting in the queue for white goods at Argos? That’s an immediately resonant snapshot, I reckon. An asphyxiated badger? A personal injury lawyer in a Porsche which has a humorous sign in the back window saying ‘My Other Car’s A Porsche’? An elderly person being abused by a cretinous thug of a nurse in an old people’s home while the victim’s offspring, inured to irony, complain to the papers about such corporate ‘neglect’? This is the thing; Britain is diverse. It could be any and all of these and a thousand more besides.
For me, though, the thing which has become defining of the country right now is the magnificent hoop-de-doodle of the politically motivated show trial, each one costing untold millions and millions of pounds and each one accompanied by a howled demand for some sort of retribution from the absolutist metropolitan elite, while the filth are shown carrying out those black plastic bags at dawn (the cameras always handily present) — and then, later, sometimes a hell of a lot later, a jury comprised of ordinary people thinking about the whole thing long and hard and almost always deciding to acquit. Trials driven by some newly discovered obsession and which get us all whipped up into a frenzy for ages — until the verdicts come through, mostly.
And usually somewhere at the heart of these trials, the slebs: the famous or just the semi-famous. It might be the octogenarian light entertainer pursued for years by claims of sexual abuse dating back four decades or so. Or it might be the younger, pristine, upstanding Christian slebs who think it wrong — on a matter of principle, mind you — that their phones may or may not have been hacked and that as a consequence of this transgression the press has to be shackled and the evil, incalculably powerful media scum what done it banged up sharpish. And yet in most cases, the juries see through these fervid demands for a kind of retributive justice, and convictions are the exception rather than the rule.
OK — Operation Yewtree nailed Max Clifford, but most of that sad procession simply had their lives ruined before either acquittal or seeing the charges dropped. And now Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor and, uh, ‘political strategist’ for David Cameron has been convicted of conspiring to hack phones, as we all suspected he might, while another former editor of the newspaper, Rebekah Brooks, has been cleared of all charges.
The jury decides the case on their view of the evidence but when all is said and done there may be those who will feel that this was overall a politically motivated show trial. That seems a little adolescent, a statement tinged with the spittle-bedecked hysteria of the conspiracy theorist. But it appears to me that these various trials — as well as that which resulted in the conviction of two of the horrible young men accused of murdering the black teenager Stephen Lawrence — were not quite a normal part of the disinterested, politically non-aligned, British judicial process. There were other forces at work; a mania and, in each case, a political agenda. I do not know either Brooks or Coulson, and have never worked for either of them. I met Rebekah Brooks once, at some ghastly media party and she seemed to be pleasant enough, if not terribly bright — but that may just have been the alcohol.
I don’t agree with hacking phones; aside from anything else it always seemed to me a form of cheating. I don’t agree with hacking computers, either — although the liberal left has managed to confect subtle distinctions between these two illegal invasions of privacy; Assange and Snowden good! Brooks and Coulson bad! My suspicion, though, is that the relentless pursuit of News International journalists and factotums was motivated more by a visceral loathing of Rupert Murdoch, who is seen by some deranged sections of the left as satanic, than any grave worries about invasion of privacy. I’ve never met Roop, either, by the way, although I do work for the bloke, I suppose.
You might hope that the acquittal of Brooks will be the final nail in the coffin of those supposed liberals who wish to limit the power of the press. Lord Justice Leveson’s findings, made when the tumult was at its height, have largely been ignored by both the newspapers and the politicians, suspected of being both unworkable and undemocratic. And yet last week one of Hacked Off’s leading lights, the comedian Steve Coogan, became a patron of the charity Index on Censorship (presumably to argue that censorship is a really bad thing unless it applies to coverage of his own behaviour). So the mania continues for a while….