Rod Liddle

Incompetence is fine: but being offensive is sure to get you sacked

Rod Liddle says that something has gone wrong when 15 South Lanarkshire social workers are sacked over a dodgy Gary Glitter joke while none of their counterparts in Haringey has even been reprimanded over the ‘Baby P’ case

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Rod Liddle says that something has gone wrong when 15 South Lanarkshire social workers are sacked over a dodgy Gary Glitter joke while none of their counterparts in Haringey has even been reprimanded over the ‘Baby P’ case

Like me, you may well have received a text message or a spammed email recently providing you with the full names of the adults held to be responsible in the appalling case of ‘Baby P’, the small child subjected to the most dreadful physical abuse resulting in his death. The details of these phone messages are usually accompanied by a demand for ‘justice’ for ‘Baby P’, by which is meant the deafs of the vile scum what killed im. It ain’t right that these murderers should ave privacy, it’s a bleedin liberty (literally). They should be anged and after being anged stamped in the face and then stabbed in the froat with a bradawl.

Even if, like me, you shrunk from the ghastly details of the ‘Baby P’ case, you must surely marvel at such self-righteousness and the unquenchable thirst for retribution. My little daughter, now three years old, objected strenuously recently when I turned off Dora the Explorer which she was watching on the Nickelodeon channel. I told her that Dora was probably a lesbian and certainly intent on teaching her to speak Spanish, two things which she needed to know nothing of for a considerable period of time, if ever at all. And then I turned it off and put the news on instead. ‘I’m going to get some scissors and cut off your nose so that you can’t smell anything and there’ll be blood all over your face,’ she screeched. This reflexive violence and loathing struck me as being borderline psychotic, but only on the same level as the telephone text message I had received the previous day about ‘Baby P’. In a way it is heartening that my daughter has joined the modern world so quickly. If you haven’t received one of these texts or emails about ‘Baby P’, then I would suggest that you are not part of the modern world, and you have my envy. You probably know nothing of Simon Cowell, or John the Dancing Pig, or Georgina Baillie, or the exciting electro-grime artist Vibezkid, or Dora the Explorer. In other words, you are one archaic mofo, and good luck to you.

Meanwhile, I texted back to my unnamed informant that the reason the ‘Baby P’ names were all shrouded in secrecy wasn’t because they were actually Muslims, or Gordon Brown’s brother, or Prince Philip, but because there were ongoing legal proceedings which would be jeopardised if the names were made public right now. In other words, ‘Baby P’ would get less justice if the names were made public. ‘Sorry, I feel a right c*** now,’ was the message I got in return. Well, hell — we all feel a right c*** from time to time, don’t we? That’s what being part of the modern world is all about, feeling a right c*** every now and then.

The day after the ‘Justice for Baby P!’ texts arrived, I read of the following story in that holy bible of the permanently sclerotic, the Daily Mail. Apparently 15 social workers in somewhere called South Lanarkshire have been sacked, or severely reprimanded, for a joke email they had circulated to their friends and colleagues. The email showed the former pop star Gary Glitter exiting an airport holding a plastic supermarket carrier bag. The photo had been doctored to show the head of a small Vietnamese child poking out of the top of the carrier bag, and the caption ‘Gary Glitter gets a takeaway’. I sniggered at the photo in much the same way as I snigger at racist jokes, and for much the same reason — I have a puerile sense of humour, the switch of which is tripped when I know I’m not supposed to find something funny, but disgusting instead. The Daily Mail raged, of course. For journalistic reasons it showed the ‘depraved’ photo, but because it did not find the photo funny but rather an affront to everything our country stands for, it blacked out the eyes of the child in the bag. I think I found this self-righteousness and hypocrisy even funnier than the original doctored photo. I’m still giggling now.

Still, the whole thing seems to me another emanation of modernity; not so much the puerile humour, which has been around since Lucilius and probably before, but the different weight we place upon transgressive behaviour and incompetence. Jokes, these days, will almost always get you sacked. Find something funny and there will always be someone to take offence; more to the point, there will always be an immediate cause to have you sacked. So let’s do a swift comparison: in Scotland, 15 social workers sacked or reprimanded because a joke they shared with one another was considered to be in questionable taste. Whereas, down in Haringey, not a single sacking or even a single reprimand for the social workers who allowed ‘Baby P’ to remain in a place where, eventually, he was killed. I do not know the fine detail of the ‘Baby P’ case — nobody in the outside world does at the moment, and I suspect we never will. But we might at least grope towards a conclusion that within the social services department, something, somewhere, went a bit awry. A bad decision was made somewhere along the line which, indirectly, led to the death of a child they were supposed to be looking after. But no sackings, no reprimands. And yet even those of you who find that joke put about by the Lanarkshire social workers truly disgusting would understand immediately which is the more gravely serious of these transgressions.

This, though, is the way of the public sector, a sort of institutionalised stupidity and political correctness. You might argue that those two cases, of Lanarkshire and Haringey, are in no way related and that it is silly to compare the two and draw broad conclusions from them. Maybe. But you must surely recognise the process at work. You may have read recently of the extremely successful traffic cop in Essex who was sacked for having made a mild, although offensive, racist joke. You may also have read of the two special police constables in Manchester who watched a ten-year-old child drown in a shallow pond because they had not been given the appropriate training for drowning incidents. One stood on the bank and watched while the other cycled away to get help, presumably from someone who had received the appropriate training. The child died. These officers were not remotely reprimanded for their behaviour; indeed, they were praised by the boss of Manchester Police for having abided by the correct procedures, which involved watching a child drown. To most of the outside world, I suspect, this will have appeared to be a lunacy — but within the institution it will have made perfect sense.

You can view the dreadful case of Jean Charles de Menezes in a similar way. Mr de Menezes, you will recall, was shot dead on a Tube train three years ago by armed policemen who — for no reason one could easily discern — considered him to be a Maghrebian terrorist. Colloquially, at least, you might argue that something went a bit awry in the Metropolitan Police on that day, either with the officers on the ground, or rather further up the chain of command. Common sense would seem to suggest that someone made a very bad mistake which resulted in the brutal and avoidable death of Mr de Menezes. But the police got themselves together and decided that there had been ‘no systemic failure’ and that nobody was to blame — it was just one of those unfortunate things. Instead, later, the Metropolitan Police and Sir Ian Blair found themselves bang to rights for having — and this takes us to a place way beyond satire, when you think about it — breached health and safety guidelines by shooting the chap on a crowded Tube train.

A crude summary of this little thesis is that infractions of health and safety regulations, or saying something which someone regards as racist or offensive to their delicate sensibilities in some other manner, will always get you sacked — whereas grotesque incompetence, negligence and stupidity, a failure to do one’s job properly and so on, even if it results in the death of a human being as a direct consequence, will not do so. The question, though, is how we have allowed ourselves to attain this extraordinary position. Justice for Baby P, then — and for the Lanarkshire 15.