Friday, December 19, 2003

Sun Rises In West Shock

No matter the actual form of words used, whenever BBC hacks talk about allegations of bias they always try and subtly imply that all the complainants are crazed Conservative bigots [actually, they'd probably call that a redundancy]. The line is that the critics are just so blinded by their fanaticism that even impartial reporting looks biased.

So what's with C4 then ? If anything, Channel 4 is generally far to the left of the BBC. Why does the BBC draw so much fire, while C4 gets away with far less flak ? Well, for a start there's the fact that the Channel 4 doesn't demand money with menaces. Jon Snow may be a nutjob, but at least we're not forced to subsidise his villa in Tuscany. Still, there are other factors. Channel 4 may proselytise liberalism but at least that's less annoying than the BBC habitual presentation of liberal talking points as though they were eternal truths cast in stone. Also, while the BBC's liberal worldview contaminates just about everything it produces short of 'The Sky At Night', C4 does occasionally allow conservative thought to sneak onto the screen. Even so, Thurs 18 Dec edition of Dispatches probably caused large numbers of the public to predict the onset of the end-times.

The program, titled 'Judges In The Dock', contained frank criticism of the performance of the judiciary. Just saying that shows how unusual a program this was. Even post-1997 the judiciary - far more than parliament - has been the liberal's preferred tool of social engineering. For C4 to air this type of analysis shows exactly the type of disinterested commitment to truth that is DOA at the Beeb.

There were other things to admire about the program. It was a shrewd decision only to feature those cases where the Court of Appeal had already overruled the judge in question, since that nicely let C4 out of arguing the facts of the case since the judiciary itself had decided there were errors made. The reporter, Mark Easton, managed avoid mawkish sentimentality without ignoring the fact that judge's decisions impact on real people. Kudos to the victims, here. They told their stories in simple and unemotional terms, and the effect was all the more compelling for that.

What Easton found - not insignificantly, there is no central record of overturned cases - was a number of judges who are regularly overruled by the Court of Appeal. In what was an indisputably brave move for someone in the media, Easton covered not only cases of judicial harshness but also cases of inappropriately lenient sentencing. Not only that, but Easton was prepared to talk about inadequate sentencing in the context of child abuse cases, which - as I may have mentioned once or twice - will brand him forever as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal in certain circles.

Still, with all that, it wasn't perfect. A victims rights activist appeared early on, but after that the only normal people permitted to speak were victims talking about their particular circumstances. When it came to diagnosing problems, possible reforms and the like, only lawyers were consulted. Leaving aside questions of foxes and hen houses, lawyers are hardly more representative of normal society than judges. Both are firmly within the bubble, and accept uncritically much that is debatable.

Certainly, I think few people will have been as shocked as one barrister clearly was that a particular judge gave stiff sentences to offenders 'no matter how eloquent a speech' the barrister gave. Likewise, it's hard not to see a certain chutzpah in hearing a barrister complain that the appeal process is expensive (must be the cost of all that stationary). In particular, Mark Easton accepted uncritically the constant refrain from both lawyers and judges that judges had to be independent. Independent of what ? The government of the day, and the vagaries of public opinion ? No complaint here, but should judges be independent of the views and morals of their fellow citizens ? Wouldn't that lead to the judiciary functioning not as servants of the public, but as colonial governors, helping to civilise the savage masses ?

It is depressing to note that two separate individuals employed the well-known 'gratuitous Daily Mail reference'. Given that this is Britain's best selling paper, they were effectively telling eight million people that the courts had no interest in serving them. Similarly, another judge explained the large number of his sentences that were increased at the Court of Appeal by explaining that he sought to 'turn criminals away from crime', while the Court of Appeal is concerned with 'public perception'. A barrister opposed increased transparency since that would tempt judges to 'pander to the media'. This is not being independent, this is outright contempt for the citizenry of this nation.

The highest concentrations of humbug came when Easton raised the possibility of disciplinary action against judges. It's hard to take seriously judicial complaints about judges 'having to look over their shoulder' and 'being spied on' when considered in the context of the Saville inquiry, MacPhearson and several other varieties of sauce for the goose.

One complaint though: Easton kept referring to 'old-boy networks', 'old school ties' and similar chippy clich├ęs. Really, Mark, it ain't the fifties any more. With howling mad marriage-hater Dame Brenda Hale being appointed a Law Lord, Lord Hoffmann forgetting he's a member of Amnesty and the Wicked Witch shipping the loot home to No 10 by the truck load, it's fair to say that an excess of Conservatism is unlikely to be the source of all the problems in the legal system.

This, in fact, was the real, underlying problem with this report. Mark Easton was never prepared to take his ideas to their logical conclusion. As a liberal, Mark Easton shares many of the judiciaries' prejudices about the public, thus he isn't prepared to see power transferred from the judges to the citizenry. Instead, Easton tries to square the circle by blaming it all on a load of Tristan D'Muppet-Swagglers. For liberals, transparency and accountability are code words for turfing out the nobs, then carrying on in the same old way. The system needs real transparency and accountability. As a conservative, I'd say the collapse of the legal system was inevitable. Freed of public accountability and proper scrutiny, it was always going to go bananas. They always do.

Nevertheless, Easton has broken the taboo, and that takes courage. Maybe we should send a tape to Greg Dyke so he can see what real journalism is ?

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