Thursday 10 February 2011

"Congratulations! You win the keys to an Austin Allegro."

A very unusual title, but let me explain. In the early 1980s there was a very large, very loud and very brusque DCI. And that was the phrase he uttered when a detective had messed up, though I don't think he actually said 'messed'. He was true to his word; within days if not hours the unfortunate officer would don a dusted-off uniform and be patrolling the (then not so mean) streets of north London in one of British Leyland's finest Panda cars.

Somehow over the last 30 years the Police Service lost that ability, that preparedness to judge and then to act upon it. Following the thinking that saw competitive sport replaced by trampolining in our schools and our educational qualifications being watered down so as to be almost meaningless, nobody could be labelled a loser. Blame became a dirty word, followed quickly by responsibility. While Police Officers would rightly be sacked for corruption, dishonesty or criminal acts, making mistakes was forgivable, almost acceptable.

However, lest we appeared arrogant, a way had to be invented to show our acceptance of failings but without picking on the individuals and their errors which had caused them. A lead was given by the Macpherson report, with its now almost infamous construction of the concept of 'institutional racism'. Here was the answer - the organisation can blame itself, take the criticism, promise to change and to do better, but leave the individuals alone, irrespective of what they had done. This was obviously the correct stance where some feature of the organisation's methods were to blame, but it was realised it could also be used even in those cases where the organisation wasn't really at fault - where the processes and protocols were sound, it was just that they weren't followed.

The Met, or at least certain sections of it, have invented a buzz-phrase for this - 'organisational contrition'. And in most cases now, that is as far as it will go. We have seen it already in relation to demonstrations and some investigations - the ACPO officer saying sorry in front of the revolving sign is now a common sight.

There is a high-profile case currently sub-judice where I am pretty certain these issues will become very public, but that of course must wait. However, as the resurrected phone-hacking investigations gets underway, the line is that there will be a new strategy, new tactics - but woe betide anyone who concludes from this that the original investigation was flawed. The new one is different, that's all, not better.

DAC Sue Akers who is heading it is an experienced, smart and practical officer, whom I admire and respect. We can have every confidence that the investigation will now be progressed thoroughly. But although there might appear to have been a reluctance to act in the past, a lack of progress despite information being available and so the possibility of errors having been made, we shouldn't expect finger-pointing. I doubt any detective will have won the keys to a Vauxhall Astra.

Blair was right shock!

No of course not Tony, but Lord, formerly Sir Ian, of that ilk. Of the seven Commissioners I served he was my least favourite, since I believe he caused damage to the structure, the culture, the aims and the reputation of the Force. But when he drew attention to how the media treated murder victims differently according to their background, I felt at the time he was probably correct - even if he expressed it a little too controversially.

In the last eight weeks we have witnessed what he meant. Two tragic murders - those of Joanna Yeates in Bristol and Nikitta Grender in Newport have it seems been separated by much more than the Bristol Channel, and illustrated his point perfectly.

If one were to compare the basic facts of these two murders there are certain similarities. Two young women, attractive, unmarried, murdered in their own homes. If anything, Nikitta being about to bear a child (which, of course, was also a victim of the murder) and the callousness of the attempt to burn her and her home after the murder ought, one might think, to make her crime slightly the more outrageous, the more newsworthy.

But while Joanna's murder was at the top of the news for many days, coverage of Nikitta has been very low key. So what are the differences in their cases which might have influenced this? Yes, the Christmas period during which the investigation into Joanna's disappearance and death was largely played out might have been quieter for other news; the very fact that such a tragedy occurred over the most important Christian religious period may have added a poignancy to the tragedy too. But isn't the real difference exactly what Lord Blair was alluding to? Put simply, using a perhaps old-fashioned concept, it was their class.

Joanna was 25, had studied, got qualifications - she was an Architect, so we were repeatedly told. (In fact she was a landscape architect, a very different occupation and one which wouldn't perhaps have had the same cachet and therefore impact?) She came from a middle-class family, rented in a nice part of town, had a middle-class boyfriend and eloquent friends and family willing to speak to the media.

Nikitta was 19, eight months pregnant (though unmarried, as we were reminded on a few occasions) and lived on a council estate. Her mother spoke via a statement read by police; her friend was interviewed on national news wearing a dressing gown. In daytime. The coverage was scant given the gravity of the crime; what there was did everything to promote an image of a typical (?) sink-estate unmarried teenage mother-to-be. A stark contrast to the features of Joanna's life and background which had been accentuated.

Murder detectives, to a man and woman, strive to solve their cases completely irrespective of the nature of the victim. It would be impossible to do otherwise - the reality of murders, especially in London, is that victims are all too often involved in drugs, gangs, prostitution or other lawful but 'alternative' lifestyles. Were value judgments made on the victim's worthiness then very little would get done. I find it a pity that the media are not as inclusive in the way they deal with these tragedies. I am genuinely interested - is it merely a commercial thing? Do murders of middle-class women sell more papers?