Rod Liddle

Some are more guilty than other

Rod Liddle says that Labour wants to keep Jeffrey Archer in jail because he is a hate figure from the days of Tory hegemony

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Dig up the cricket pitch and chain yourself to the railings. Fling yourself in front of the monarch's horse. For the time has come to campaign for the release of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare. You may hate the man and think him undeserving of your time and effort – but believe me, an injustice is being perpetrated.

Archer is up for parole pretty soon, but he won't get it if David Blunkett and the Home Office have their way. Already Mr Blunkett's office has written to Martin Narey, the commissioner for corrective services, suggesting that Archer stay inside for a good deal longer – until December – and that parole be denied. Or at least this is alleged to have happened. Needless to say, the Home Office denies all knowledge and says that the letter in question, published by the Sunday Mirror, was a forgery. Yeah, sure, right.

The crime for which Jeffrey may be denied his parole is little more than a technicality. While on day release, he attended a sort of ghastly cocktail party at Gillian Shepherd's house when, really, he should have been at home. I accept that, for most people, being given a sudden taste of freedom and choosing to spend it drinking martinis with Gillian Shepherd is bizarre and perverse. But I'm not sure it should cost five months of a man's life.

When you examine how the Home Office refers to Archer, in its secret memos obtained under the Data Protection Act by the still ...uh, fragrant Mary Archer, you get an insight into the mindset of just what this great government department thinks and wants.

Jeffrey is referred to nastily and disparagingly throughout the 20-odd pages of documents. 'Some con called Archer' is the sarcastic reference by a Home Office official on 7 January this year. Then there's this little aside: 'Perhaps the jail could remind the council not to mention the above pest.' And there are spiteful dissections of his prison diary, claiming gross inaccuracies. And more sarcasm referring to him, gleefully, as 'naughty'; of him 'snaffling' the Simple Truth fund (allegations which never led to a court case, let alone a conviction); and the headline to another memo, on 27 September last year, 'Archer bloody Archer'; or, more vindictiveness, referring to him as 'Lord Archer of Wayland', the prison wherein he was incarcerated.

Everywhere, in bold print, is the suggested 'line' to be taken when talking about Archer to the media. That line is always that he is being treated no better and no worse than any other inmate. And everywhere else is the suspicion that this is not happening, quite.

I mean, do you get the picture? Do you think he's going to get a fair deal from the Home Office? Do you think he's had a fair deal so far?

I'd better come clean. I don't like Jeffrey Archer. I've always thought of him as a philistine, a self-promoting and self-serving, smug and arrogant wide boy, immediately grinningly redolent of a period of Conservative hegemony which seemed either to champion those unpleasant values embodied by Archer or, at best, turn a blind eye to them. And that, I suspect, is the point, the reason why the government can get away with treating him like this. He is the vestigial tail of a discredited and heartily despised regime. And, of course, if you wish to rekindle the memories of that last Conservative administration, it is politically rather useful to have such a prominent member of it behind bars. Archer is still the victim of the occasional reference from government ministers and Labour backbenchers; he is a handy stick with which to beat the Opposition.

I suspect I was not alone in succumbing to a vindictive spasm of jubilation when Archer was sentenced to four years imprisonment in July 2001. But it was a pretty disgusting reflex of mine; because, as a small, quiet part of me suspected at the time, the sentence was out of all proportion to the crime (perjury and perverting the course of justice) – and the iniquities have continued ever since.

He will not thank me for saying this, because it does not help his case or endear him any the more to the general public, but Archer is not alone in being the extremely high-profile victim of what seem to be skewed judicial procedures. Nor is he alone in having either the government or the people (as represented by the tabloid press) demanding rather more than their pound of flesh.

Here, below, are a few other cases where, in the glare of publicity, deeply unpleasant people seem to have been sentenced more for their apparent unpleasantness than for any crimes they may or may not have committed.