The Tories have once again talked the populist talk, only to realise that when it came to walking the practicality walk, they were out of ideas - and totally out of line. After news emerged that “Black Cab Rapist” John Worboys would be paroled later this month, there was an outcry, not least from some of his victims who had not been informed of the move. The press, as so often, demanded action, but did not bother with such things as the law.
Tim Shipman, the alleged doyen of political pundits
As the reasoning of the parole board was, as the law stands, confidential, this could not be openly challenged, but our free and fearless press knew that, whatever it was, it had to be wrong and therefore could easily be overridden. The press also knew that they would not be the ones having to execute this largely fanciful manoeuvre.
And despite knowing that not only the judiciary, but also that parole board, were independent of politicians, new Justice Secretary David Gauke declared that he would seek a Judicial Review of the parole board’s actions. The impression was given that, in accordance with press demands, Worboys would be staying behind bars. It was only when Gauke had had the opportunity to repent at leisure that he realised he had fouled up.
So he appeared before the Commons and meekly admitted that he would not be seeking any kind of review: Worboys would be released in accordance with the parole board’s decision. London Mayor Sadiq Khan was not so persuaded, and will continue to examine the feasibility of judicial review. But meanwhile, the pundits were stirring.
As so often, the Press and Pundit Establishment decided that not only was it qualified to pontificate on the Worboys case, it also knew (how? Don’t ask) that no-one else knew as much as they did, whomsoever they be. This is the default knowledge mode assumption of that Establishment: they know, and you don’t, so there.
This brings us to the obscenely overrated Tim Shipman, now of the Murdoch Sunday Times, who knew more than everyone else put together, including anyone who had the audacity to respond in a less than adulatory fashion on Twitter. His outpourings demonstrate in spades the flawed nature of the Press and Pundit Establishment.
He kicked off with “The Worboys affair has been very revealing for this political hack. The political incompetence is my bread and butter. More telling has been the number of pompous, sanctimonious, patronising lawyers prepared to defend a process that has so obviously failed”. That “political incompetence” extended to David Gauke. For the rest of his targets there is no citation. And I doubt there will be one. But there is a Straw Man.
Had he read the Secret Barrister’s thread on the case? “I have … He’s arguing we shouldn't jump to judgment before knowing the secret details. I'm arguing that many lawyers are jumping to the view that the decision must be defended without knowing the details”. Another Straw Man. No citation. And it wasn’t getting any better.
“The decision seems mad. The onus is on those who made it to justify it, not on the rest of us to accept it on the basis of assurances that the parole board is a wise and just institution. We don't trust our politicians. I'm no more inclined to trust our judges”. He doesn’t know how the parole board arrived at their decision. But very revealing that he deploys yet another Straw Man - and gets wrong that the judiciary is somehow involved.
Shipman was told what any judicial review would examine - whether the process was flawed - but he was not listening. Instead, we learned that he had been talking to a victim: “but there are enough questions about the engagement of victims (including the one I've been dealing with) to suggest that should be tested in court. Just saying ‘it's a great process and it must be fine because it's British and it's the law’ isn't good enough”. And yet another Straw Man. Plus he doesn’t know what consideration was given to the victims.
What Shipman was prepared to advocate, though, was breaking the law in a way which would generate More And Bigger Self-Promotion Opportunities For Himself Personally Now. When reminded “The parole board is not allowed to reveal the reasons”, his response was to declare “Then they should leak”. Heads he wins, tails they lose.
And when Andrew Cooper observed with justifiable cynicism “Thank God for the faultless professionalism, thoroughness and integrity of political journalists”, there came back the inevitable scoffing response of entitlement: “Thanks for your warm endorsement. We don’t make the laws or enforce them. No one needs faith in us. You can buy our product or not. We are stuck with the judges and politicians. At least we can vote out the latter”.
What Tim Shipman fails to understand is that, as the Fourth Estate is the last bastion of unelected, effectively unregulated, and therefore unaccountable power, he is chucking significantly sized rocks in a very draughty glasshouse. The size of his megaphone, the dysfunctional way in which the press, without bothering itself to become knowledgeable, barges in, declares its view to be reality, and demands action for which it never has to assume responsibility, are all ignored by The Great Man, as if they did not exist.
He and his colleagues don’t care to understand what is going on, except to denounce it. They know this is a delicate and potentially inflammable situation, but throw in as many tinder-dry Straw Men as they can muster. They claim to speak for victims, and the public at large, but in the final reckoning care not a fig for either.
The legal profession which he denounces in such cavalier terms is as concerned about this case as anyone else. So are many of the politicians and judges he doesn’t trust. But Shipman does not care to understand, let alone consider, such matters.
As with any subject that requires specialist knowledge, the press has over the years sent most of its expert correspondents down the road in pursuit of cost cutting. This is where it leads - pundits who are so full of their own importance that they, and their papers, potentially get things very wrong. And when the Sunday Times goes wrong, not only do most of the rest of the press pack go wrong, but so do many of the public.
We have in Tim Shipman another reminder of what Stanley Baldwin said back in 1931: “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.
Anyone outside the Press and Pundit Establishment can see that. It is the greatest pity that those within, and especially Tim Shipman, cannot. That is all.