Judging us all
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
The Prime Minister has pledged that policy announcements will now be made not by spin-doctors briefing media contacts, but by ministers addressing the highest public forum in our democracy. Yesterday the Home Secretary demonstrated what Mr Blair had in mind, by revealing his plans for new anti-paedophile laws not in the House of Commons but in the News of the World.
David Blunkett flattered the newspaper for having ‘campaigned tirelessly’ for Sarah’s Law (which would allow public access to information about sex offenders).
He assured the NoW that ‘the Government has already implemented seven eighths’ of its demands, and said he could ‘promise News of the World readers’ that, within a year, he would deliver a new law to allow ‘community involvement in managing sex offenders’.
Coming days after the conviction of Roy Whiting for the horrific murder of Sarah Payne, Blunkett’s intervention is typical of a system we might describe as government by kneejerk. The hard-headed business of lawmaking seems increasingly influenced by emotion and theatrical gestures. Legislation is proposed on all sides as an immediate reaction to highly charged events, rather than the result of dispassionate reflection.
The past week’s news has been dominated by three important trials, concerning the Selby rail crash, the murder of Sarah Payne and the attack on student Sarfraz Najeib in Leeds. This extraordinary coincidence provides a revealing snapshot of the way in which issues to do with criminal justice and the Home Office now dominate domestic debate.
Trials such as these are no longer seen simply as legal cases to be judged on the basis of the evidence. They are treated more like courtroom morality plays. Each case is now assumed to carry a wider message about the society in which we live, so that each verdict is seen in some way as a judgment upon us all. And the emotive reaction seems always to be a call for yet more new laws to police or protect us.
The Selby trial, in which Gary Hart was convicted of causing ten deaths by falling asleep at the wheel and careering on to the rail track, has been reported as an indictment of modern living, with its Internet sex, all-night phone chats and text messages, symbolised by Hart’s foolish claim that he lived at ‘a thousand miles an hour’. The conclusion some draw is that we need new laws to treat driving under the influence of sleep in the same way as drink-driving. Perhaps the police will soon be equipped with roadside tests to measure sand in the eyes, or the size of a yawn.
The trial of the Leeds footballers accused of assaulting Sarfraz Najeib was similarly treated as a parable. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were found not guilty of GBH, although Woodgate was convicted of affray. But reactions to the trial have made clear that it should be seen as an indictment of modern football, an entire generation of young men, racism, and alcohol. There have since been calls for new measures to curb ‘binge drinking’ (surely only new Labour’s neo-Puritans could be shocked to discover that lads drink more than four pints in a night), and to gerrymander jury selection to ensure that ethnic minorities are represented.
The Sarah Payne murder trial has been credited with even wider significance. A very rare murder is presented as evidence of a growing threat to all our children. We are bombarded with hasty demands for new laws that can only heighten the fear of ‘stranger danger’ that now poses a bigger threat to our children’s freedom than the relatively small number of predatory paedophiles.
While supporters of Sarah’s Law imagine a secret army of Roy Whitings stalking the land, many opponents take a similarly dark view of the human condition, worrying about ‘mob rule’ and declaring that children are most at risk from abuse in their own homes. Not only are we apparently besieged by sex offenders, but we are all deemed potential paedophiles or lynch mobsters now.
Life, it would appear, is one long trial today. The anxious debates surrounding these cases leave us with an unsavoury but unreal image of a lowlife society, populated by dangerous drivers, drunken yobs and racists, untrustworthy juries, violent perverts and their victims, with only Mr Blunkett, his new five-tier police force and his new friends at the News of the World holding back the deluge. The old wisdom ‘hard cases make bad law’ now seems to be considered hopelessly outdated, along with such other dusty notions as ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
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