I had rather respected Gerry Hassan
as a fair commentator and a decent reporter. But his attack on me for defending the Liberal politician David Steel degenerates into the cheapest of all clichés – 'the establishment still looks after its own'. I, in this case, am portrayed as the establishment, Gerry as the right-thinking voice of reason and dissent.
Gerry, 'the establishment' is a ritual denouncement from the 1970s, and a personal insult that is unworthy of you. I no more represent an establishment than you represent the radical left. I am pretty proud of my journalistic past – 25 years in Manchester, Dublin and Fleet Street, working for some of the great crusading editors – Bob Edwards, Charles Wintour, Harry Evans, Donald Trelford – including as news editor at the Sunday Times
in the days of the Insight team, one of the great models of investigative journalism. Then another 25 years in Scotland, six of them spent editing The Scotsman
, where we investigated Lockerbie, the Robert Black murders, poll-tax, Dundee corruption, and the UK government's attempt to gag our spy revelations, taking our case to the House of Lords – and winning.
Since then, I have written a column for The Times
, and have, throughout, regarded the great duty of a journalist as challenging authority, doubting its motives, exposing hypocrisy and questioning any political decision that commands widespread and unquestioning support, in which case it is certainly open to challenge.
Backing a Government inquiry and its findings without question places you, Gerry Hassan, firmly in the ranks of a modern establishment – not one that dominates from the top, but one that, flaccidly, accepts the mores of the time. Say child abuse, and a certain marshmallow attitude follows, which allows of no dissent, no challenging of fixed responses, merely a smug and self-congratulatory sneer against anyone who disagrees.
Just listen to what you have said: 'Steel should have no-one defending him in this…' Do you seriously believe that? Do you honestly think that there are some situations where dissent is simply impermissible, and those who stand out against received opinion should be, in the current phrase, 'no-platformed', deprived of the ability to disagree, and therefore frozen out of acceptable debate?
Well, I reject that. If I think an injustice has been done, I will say so, and I challenge you to take me on, not with that tired leftish vocabulary, but with some genuine argument.
So, in taking up the case of David Steel, I have used what was once considered standard practice in the textbook of investigative journalism, and looked at the facts – in this case a transcript of Steel's cross-examination by counsel for the Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA).
The former Liberal leader came to the inquiry without legal representation, and gave his own recollection of that episode in 1979, when Cyril Smith, the Liberal MP, came to see him in the House of Commons, following a Private Eye
story, which said Smith had been interviewed by the police about the abuse of small boys 12 years earlier, during visits to a children's hostel in Rochdale.
Here is the exchange, given to the inquiry:
Steel: 'What I said to him was: "What's all this about you in Private Eye
?", and he said, rather to my surprise, it is correct that he had been in charge of – or had some supervisory role in a children's hostel; that he'd been investigated by the police, and that they had taken no further action, and that was the end of the story.'
Counsel to the Inquiry: 'So should we take from that that it was a very, very brief discussion?'
Steel: 'I think it was fairly brief, yes.'
For the IICSA, however, it was very far from the end of the story. That exchange was conflated into the claim that Smith had made a full 'confession' to Steel, and every newspaper in the land picked up on that, and were universal in their condemnation of Steel's failure to act on it. He was accused of an 'abdication of responsibility' for not immediately reporting that to the police. Yet all he knew at that stage was that there had been a police investigation, but it had not been pursued.
There was anther exchange, where Steel, at the inquiry, was asked whether he thought the allegations were true. The reply he gives is that he 'assumed' they were, but that since the police or the DPP had examined the evidence and had decided to take no action, he was in no position to challenge that.
None of this suggests that Smith confessed, and the IICSA counsel should not have been allowed to say so. It would never have got past defence counsel in a proper trial. I have subsequently spoken to three leading lawyers, and they agree that what happened at the inquiry was a one-sided prosecution. One told me that he believed Steel had been dealt with 'shamefully' and had urged him to challenge the proceedings.
However, Steel has accepted the IICSA's verdict, and has announced that he is retiring from public life, giving up his seat in the House of Lords, and resigning from the party he once led.
Closer inquiries reveal something that Gerry probably does not know. Unrepresented, and with the hearing 'loop' for people with deaf aids not functioning, Steel was provided with an overhead microphone which distorts transmission. On at least seven occasions, he has to ask for the question to be repeated. Again, in any court of law that would not have been allowed. The case would have been suspended until the technology had been corrected.
Gerry is uninterested in any of this. He has his credentials as an unflinching defender of the victims to parade, and here is a public figure who ignores them. Steel must be thrown on the refuse tip of history, and his defenders mocked. Job done.
I find everything about that attitude superficial, lazy and unforgiving. It ignores Steel's long history of social reform, his championing of women and the introduction of the abortion act, his fight against apartheid, the work he has done in Africa, the welding of the Liberals and the Social Democrats, his campaign in support of devolution, his service as first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, and, most recently, his efforts to reform the House of Lords and place it at the service of the devolved nations.
In the Gerry Hassan worldview none of these count, when set against that apparent dereliction of duty back in 1979.
I disagree. I believe that one should think the better of one's fellow human beings rather than assuming the worst. Yes, Steel is a friend, and I happen to think that when a friend is unjustly attacked, one has a duty to defend him. Gerry, I'm sorry you don't see things that way.
Remember what Burns said about humanity:
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human
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