The plebgate plot thickens

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It is only fair to Andrew Mitchell M.P., formerly holder of the important political office known as government chief whip, that I should return briefly to the plebgate incident. When I last wrote about it (here) I said it was "morphing from one about a bad-tempered upper-class put-down into a case of a cabinet member telling lies about a law-enforcement matter, and slandering armed police officers who work for his government and may have to put their lives on the line protecting it from terrorist attack". Well, it has morphed more since then. It turns out that some police officers lied about the incident. Three have actually been arrested, and seven more are being investigated. And this morning Mitchell is reported as having filed a libel suit against the newspaper that broke the story.

The police on the scene said that several members of the public had witnessed the original incident and had been visibly shocked, but Mitchell obtained closed circuit TV footage that revealed this was false. And an email claiming to come from an ordinary member of the public who witnessed the incident turned out to have come from a police officer in the diplomatic protection unit who had not even been in London at the time.

Mitchell has now sued The Sun, the newspaper that broke the story with great relish in September 2012. This will be complex. The Sun said Mitchell called the police "fucking plebs" in an ill-tempered outburst against officers who told him he couldn't ride his bike through the gates when exiting Downing Street (the short street where the prime minister lives), but had to walk it through a pedestrian gate. The story has just the right notes for The Sun: posh Rugby-educated Member of Parliament and key member of the ruling Conservative Party accuses brave police officers of being lower-class. (The Sun, which exhibits a girl with bare breasts every morning on page 3, is oriented toward the kind of working-class readers who support the Labour Party and hate snooty right-wing Tories like Mitchell.)

Mitchell agrees that he swore at police who pointlessly hindered him at the end of a long working day, but denies that he said "plebs". So that's a satisfying story too: tired public servant frustrated by needlessly pedantic policemen harassing, by insisting on silly regulations, a well-known ministerial-level office-holder within the government that they serve — a principled public servant who would of course never insult honest officers by suggesting that they were lower-class.

Police on duty at Downing Street on the day still insist he did say "plebs", which suggests Mitchell might have serving police officers testifying against his libel complaint and thus defending the newspaper he is suing.

Yet other police officers, supporting those who oppose Mitchell, have apparently lied, and are being arrested for engaging in various kinds of improper conduct and in effect conspiring against him. So Mitchell may be able to get senior investigating officers, some from other police forces, to testify for him and rebut the charges made by The Sun and by some of their fellow officers. . .

Welcome to the maelstrom of Westminster politics, English defamation law, British class warfare, and police/public conflict. This one will be hot, and I'll be following it closely.

In a legal tradition (like those of England and Canada) where the owner of a publishing company can feel that he has a reasonable chance of getting a million dollars of damages off a librarian who expresses an unfavorable opinion about the quality of the books published by his company (see my brief comments on the Dale Askey case here), hardly anything can be presumed likely or unlikely. Plaintiffs have won some astounding cases; but among other things, it isn't even clear here that the charge of having called someone a pleb is damagingly defamatory. Though I suppose one could say that The Sun certainly regarded it as juicily defamatory, which is why they blew it up into such a big thing, eventually forcing Mitchell's resignation from the most important office he had ever held.

I wouldn't bet a dime on the outcome of this one. I will just watch and report. But in the meantime, don't call any London policemen plebs; they may indeed come from the working class (very few policemen were educated at Rugby School), but they consider "pleb" insulting. Just say "Yes, officer; thank you, officer," and get off your bike and walk through the gate they tell you to walk through.

Postscript: One of the charges in the two libel suits filed in Canada by the Edwin Mellen Press against Dale Askey claims that he should pay a million dollars in damages partly because he allowed false allegations about Mellen books being of poor quality to appear in the comments on his blog. One can't be too careful when dealing with the English defamation law tradition. And I work in the UK. So comments on this post will be opened below immediately after hell freezes over or the present appalling winter ends in Edinburgh, whichever of those two is the later.

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