6 DECEMBER 2008, Page 24

The law applies to Damian Green, too

Rod Liddle is reluctant to join the journalistic herd in its unqualified outrage at the Tory MP’s arrest. But it is certainly time to put the police under the microscope Great news — grooming is now a criminal offence. I’ve always had problems with it, frankly. When about to go out somewhere special for the evening my personal grooming consists of hacking at my face with the blunt Bic razor my wife keeps by the side of the bath for when the waxing business hasn’t quite done the trick, and three strategic squirts of Lynx ‘Africa’ deodorant (a procedure known colloquially as a ‘Glasgow Shower’). I end up at functions heavily bandaged and smelling of Dr Milton Obote, but nobody seems to mind. Grooming, I always thought, was overrated. How nice that the police agree.

Damian Green, the shadow immigration minister, was recently picked up by the filth for ‘grooming’, and has objected strenuously about the fact. It was the word he objected to, primarily, a word which these days means something very different to what it once meant. It is one of those words which has been appropriated by authoritarian institutions, such as the police, and loaded with associative meaning by them. In modern-day parlance, grooming is something done by kiddie fiddlers to the kiddies with whom they later plan to fiddle. This is primarily why Mr Green objected — the paedophile connotations. It is in both senses a ‘nonce’ word, something coined by the Old Bill to get themselves out of a hole and fabricate a charge. Because there is nothing illegal in the act of ‘grooming’ itself. One man’s grooming is another man’s conversation, etc.

The Damian Green case is perfectly straightforward, if you are not a copper. If Green conspired with his pet civil servant to illegally obtain documents, then he probably has a case to answer. If you acquire stolen material, the correct procedure is to return it to its owners or hand it over to the police, rather than exploit it for personal and party political gain. If you think that the material you’ve seen is important and in the public interest, then you should use the political and legal system to insist that such material should be accessible to the public. This seems pompous and sort of unjournalistic, but then I always have a problem, a sneaking worry, when the entire journalistic establishment is united in its outrage, as has been the case following Mr Green’s arrest. And I don’t understand why laws which apply to the rest of us should not also apply to the otherwise first-rate Damian Green. To be sure, there is too much secrecy and chicanery in government, although rather less now than when Mr Green’s party was last in power. But you combat this self-serving secrecy through an insistence upon legislation, not by adopting a pet civil servant (much as one might adopt a chinchilla) and colluding in his repeated breaking of the law. The civil servant, meanwhile, should certainly be sacked for betrayal of trust and perhaps prosecuted too; I cannot see any defence for what was, it appears, an almost perpetual breach of trust and contract. As journalists, of course, we have a vested interest in ‘leaks’; but no matter how much we might like them, it does not mean that they are legitimate. In a sense, the ‘public interest’ defence is even more elliptical than the use of that word ‘grooming’; both can mean anything, depending upon where you are sitting.

My nervousness about this whole business became crystallised when I saw Diane Abbott talking about it on the excellent This Week. It is an important, but often unacknowledged fact, that everything Diane Abbott says about anything is always 100 per cent wrong. You could base your entire life on always believing and doing the opposite to that believed or urged upon you by Ms Abbott — and you will die happy and fulfilled at the age of 110, having occupied the moral high ground for your entire life. Commenting on the Damian Green case, she averred that it was impossible that the government didn’t know what was going on in advance of his arrest and had in fact colluded in it, had said that it was a good idea. At that precise moment I understood absolutely that the government had not known about his arrest and had not, there fore, colluded in it. No matter how much you might hate this government, at least allow them a vestige of low cunning. Look at it both ways, though: if the government had known about the arrest of Mr Green in advance, it would have been grotesquely unconstitutional for the Home Secretary, or any other elected politician, to have insisted that they not arrest the man. But as to collusion, as to the notion that the government might have urged the police to take action, how stupid do you consider them to be? Do you think for a single moment that they would not have anticipated the furore that followed the arrest, the outraged howls that we are living in a police state, that Britain is just the same as North Korea except that we don’t eat grass just yet? My guess is that if the government really did know anything about the arrest of Mr Green in advance then they were deeply worried about it but felt unable to interfere one way or the other. They had to abide by the law. The police are operationally independent.

Independent, mind, but hardly flawless. And infected with a political sensibility and an overweening sense of self-importance, too. Both of these qualities are evident in their repeated deployment of the term ‘grooming’, as applied to Damian Green. It is there in the fabulously heavy-handed manner in which Mr Green was arrested, and indeed in the length of time — nine hours, I believe — during which he was detained at the police station before being released without charge. A whole bunch of police officers, including those from the anti-terrorist squad, descended upon Green’s house at dawn. Why so many officers? Did they think that Mr Green would scream, ‘You’ll never take me alive, copper,’ and start spraying them with submachine-gun fire? What was the point in the nine hours of detention? What impulse made them try to nail Mr Green to an offence through the deployment of that fatuous term ‘grooming’? How many police officers do you need to arrest a Tory MP? And what, actually, is ‘grooming’?

The Met has become a police force which, while mercifully not institutionally racist any more, is at best institutionally stupid. It has also, a little like the BBC and most of our local councils, entirely lost sight of what it is there to do, which in the case of the police is to protect ordinary members of the public from crime and apprehend genuine wrong-doers. It has become tied up with the pursuit of usually nonexistent or ectoplasmic hate crimes while colloquially not giving a monkey’s about the crimes which affect the majority of the public: street crime, burglaries, car theft and so on. Its senior officers seem to believe, much as did the hilarious and now thankfully departed Sir Ian Blair, that they are a sort of experiment in social engineering; that we, the public, must reassess what we consider to be crime and what we consider to be acceptable behaviour. When the dust settles on the Damian Green business, one just hopes that it is the police who are put under the microscope, rather than the politicians.