Plebgate: an overdue apology

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It is time for Language Log to set things straight about the Right Honourable Andrew John Bower Mitchell MP. The story of what everyone thought had happened in London on 19 September 2012 was reported here (by yours truly) in this post and this follow-up. It involved (we all thought) a snooty and arrogant Conservative government minister and member of the House of Commons snarling words of class prejudice, in front of shocked independent bystanders, at an honest cop who was merely trying to enforce the laws that Parliament had ordained. The linguistic point of interest was that the nastiest of those words was alleged to be the noun pleb. Not the expressive expletive fucking: Mitchell never denied muttering something like I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us when the police told him to push his bike out of Downing Street through a small pedestrian gate rather than ride it through the big one. No, the scandal was that a minister of the crown had used a contemptuous upper-class snob's term for the common people.

Language Log repeated the story that the British newspapers gloried in; but after 15 months of glacially slow police investigation costing around a quarter of a million dollars, yielding one prosecution, the story now looks very different. It appears the Right Honourable Andrew Mitchell was both right and honorable. He was framed by lying cops, and deserves an apology.

As a BBC radio satire program ("The Now Show") pointed out recently, the original story was one that fitted in with the prejudices and stereotypes held by millions: a stuck-up, nasty, selfish, rich privately-educated, ruling-class scofflaw showing contempt for an ordinary police constable. A lying politician with no backup versus an honest policeman with independent witnesses? No contest. We anti-Conservatives (for yes, there are one or two liberal intellectuals here at Language Log Plaza) knew which side to be on.

Well, we were dead wrong. It was all bullshit, and the police were lying.

First some closed circuit TV footage emerged showing Mitchell in a very brief exchange with a policeman, not a major shouting altercation, with no tourists near the gate to witness it.

Then a panel of Police Federation members from the West Midlands police force who had met with Mitchell, and had told the press that Mitchell had refused to supply details about the incident, were found to have lied: they didn't know that Mitchell had secretly recorded the meeting. When the transcript became available, it was quite clear that they had not told the truth about what Mitchell had said.

Then, most seriously, it emerged that a key independent witness to the original incident was not as he purported to be. An email had been sent to the Deputy Chief Whip from someone claiming to be an ordinary tourist visiting Downing Street with a nephew from Hong Kong who had witnessed the crucial event. But the email actually came from a man who had been on vacation in Cornwall (some 250 miles away from Downing Street) at the time. And he was a police officer in the Diplomatic Protection Group, which has the job of protecting members of the government. He was lying to support the lies of a colleague.

On January 10, 2014, that officer, PC Keith Wallis, pleaded guilty to misconduct in public office at the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court in London).

So everything is the opposite of what we thought. No pompous Tory liar abusing honest cops; instead, mendacious cops colluding to blacken the name of an honest minister who (at worst) had muttered a swearword or two when at the end of a long day he was brusquely told to get off his bike (and had apologized for that). The police had tried to frame him. And they had largely succeeded: Mitchell not only apologized for his swearing (while steadfastly denying saying "plebs"), he also resigned as a cabinet member and Chief Whip for the government party.

So it is time to munch on humble pie. Language Log sincerely apologizes to Mr Mitchell for repeating the story about him that everyone else was telling back in 2012. Now that the police and the judiciary have (slowly and reluctantly) permitted something a bit more like the truth to emerge, it is quite clear that he has been wronged, and that he was unfairly pushed into resigning from his government post. I'm sorry I joined in the chorus of the British press. I was wrong.

The police may in fact have been the only ones to bring the word plebs into the story that became known as Plebgate (which has a Wikipedia entry of its own under that name). Mitchell may never have uttered the word at all. One of the key policemen who said he heard it has admitted being a liar, and has been convicted. Sometimes a juicy anti-establishment story that seems too good to be true is not good and not true.

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