Sunday, November 04, 2007

Martin Kettle Is a Worthless Old Hack

It used to be reasonably commonplace that bloggers, especially American ones, would say that at least in Britain there was enough diversity in the press that no equivalent to the classic US pundit wanker existed - no-one like David Brooks or David Broder, essentially content-free and heavily invested in the self-regard of the political class. Rather, you had a choice between, say, Alan Watkins, Polly Toynbee, Richard Littlejohn, Tariq Ali, and David Aaronovitch; hardly an enviable choice, but at least a choice.

But there is a version of the kind of thing the US blogosphere has raged against for years; and Martin Kettle of the Guardian is it. I think it was Daniel Davies who said about him that some people are useful idiots, but he is a useless one. I disagree; he certainly has his uses, just not to me, you, or Daniel Davies. Let's see a take.

Here's his response to the conviction of the Metropolitan Police.
There is no easy answer to the question of whether Sir Ian Blair should resign as London's police chief. Anyone who pretends otherwise is kidding. There are serious arguments for him to fall on his sword. But there are also serious arguments for him to stay where he is. On balance the case for him remaining commissioner is much stronger. Yet it would be idle to say this without reservations.

We'll stop here to mark a couple of tropes; first of all, there's what Roland Barthes called Neither-Nor Criticism. All Kettle's published work is riddled with it. On the one hand there's this, on the other hand there's that, and therefore the answer is to be neither of them, and say nothing of any interest. This wouldn't be so bad if we were in an ideal society, or else in the original position, when nothing was settled; but we're not, and therefore the impact of this sort of speech is to reinforce things as they are now, with God in his heaven, the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, Sir Ian Blair in Scotland Yard, and Jean Charles de Menezes in his grave.

The main argument for Blair to go is simple. He is the head of a police force that killed an innocent man under a firearms policy he authorised and controlled. To me, the circumstances in which Jean Charles de Menezes was gunned down by Blair's officers are less important than the fact that it happened at all. Police forces should not kill innocent people, period.

Yet when they do, justice demands that those who did the killing must be held to account. Most of all, this applies to those who pulled the trigger. But police chiefs must accept their share of responsibility too. As the man in charge, the buck stops with Blair. Of course he should consider his position. I would be utterly amazed if he has not done so.

He's a nice guy really; he's one of us. Has Kettle considered that he simply likes power too much to give it up, or has political ambitions? Or that he might simply refuse to believe he could be wrong?

This responsibility applies with special force over police shootings. Yes, some police shootings are not merely justified by their circumstances but are also acts of high courage. Far too many, however, are neither of these things. Though rare, the death of De Menezes was not a one-off. Fifteen people have been killed by British police shooters since 2002. Nor was this the most egregious case in recent memory. Remember the indefensible fate of Steven Waldorf (who survived) or John Shorthouse a generation ago.

There are established patterns in all police forces of reckless shooting, excessive firing, insufficient training, poor supervision and inadequate accountability. We have to enforce a higher standard than in the past, and the most important police officer in the land must observe it.

Kettle has just claimed that the situation is far worse than David Davis, Mr. Justice Henriques, or the IPCC suggest; the police force is a menace, has been a menace for years, and the menace extends to the provincial forces as well as the Met. Surely we ought to do something about it? Now, this would have been a reasonable contribution to the debate had it stopped here. But, of course, although in a sense the Met's failings are accepted as true, they are also inadmissible, as Orwell put it. Therefore, something must be found to cancel out the information in the first part of the article.

So why then say he should not resign? Surely because, more than anything else, this was such an extreme emergency. The police genuinely thought De Menezes was a suicide bomber. They were wrong. Yet, on the day of his death, every one of the officers in the capital was hunting for four bombers who had failed to blow themselves up on the underground the previous day.

Yes, in a manner so catastrophically hopeless they were lucky they didn't kill more people. They were also looking in the wrong places entirely; the bombers were in Birmingham, and in Italy having successfully got past Special Branch's spotter at Waterloo.

The police were at full stretch, in real danger, and bore a massive responsibility to the public. It ended horribly wrongly for De Menezes. Yet those who reserve the entirety of their indignation for the tragic Brazilian are not looking at this situation objectively.

Objectively, huh? Translation: I was a commie at university until I saw which way house prices were going. That is cheap snark, but it's a classic mark of the breed that anyone who disagrees with them isn't "serious", isn't "objective", isn't quite sane. If he wants to talk objectivity, by the way, perhaps he should consider even mentioning the facts of the case; we haven't seen a single fact about it so far.

What about this week's finding of guilt against the Metropolitan Police under the health and safety laws? Surely Blair should accept responsibility for that? It would be dishonest not to admit this is a serious question. I admit to feeling, even when the law is a complete ass, that bosses ought to step up to the plate if their organisations are found guilty. But I accept it with the utmost reluctance in this case - and I passionately hope the Met appeals and wins.

You can argue that it wasn't Blair's fault; but can you honestly argue that the courts should strike out the 19 failings, the firearms team who took five hours to rock up, the mystery senior colleague, the arse-awful command and control? But he's going to; not because he disagrees with any of the facts of the case, but because he thinks the court should rule on the basis of what would be a nice verdict, not on the evidence. But first, this...

You see, I want to be protected from the suicide bombers. I'm a hundred per cent in favour of peaceful prevention if humanly possible. But I don't care how indignant the bomber feels. If it comes down to the bomber's life or mine, I want the bomber to be stopped every time, and by force if necessary. Ken Livingstone is wholly correct to say that health and safety legislation was never drawn up for such extreme situations as this. And the law is not just an ass but an outright threat to liberty if this week's judgment means a future armed officer is afraid to fire at a real suicide bomber in similar circumstances.

Oh, right, it's because you're scared. When I read this I had the feeling of having seen something shameful, someone behaving in a pathetic and embarrassing and humiliating fashion. Who the fuck said anything about how "indignant the bomber feels"? What fucking bomber, for fuck's sake? There wasn't any bomber; you can come out now. I want Sir Ian Blair sacked because I've considered the evidence, and I conclude that I've met all kinds of people - warehouse workers, Australian stockmen, Viennese anarcho-feminists, telco executives, random bloggers - who I'd sooner trust to protect London from terrorists.

And no, it's not a "threat to liberty"; it's a possible threat to security. Liberty is just fine with the idea that the police should be less keen to shoot.

More seriously, where do these people get the idea that organisations with safety critical functions work better in the absence of criticism or responsibility? It can't be from experience; Kettle is a career pundit, having started out as a leader writer. The whole history of safety engineering is the exact opposite; if you're playing with the big boys' toys, you cannot afford to skim over your mistakes, ever. There are very good reasons why airlines have senior training captains and CHIRP confidential-reporting forms, companies have external auditors, and newspapers have editors.

Come to think of it, the whole history of Western political thought is about this exact point; the limitation of power. It's a timeless, placeless truth - anyone who tells you they need absolute irresponsibility to work better is wrong.

Be clear that this is now a real possibility. That is why the conviction of the Met this week was bad news not good news. The tyranny of the insurance-driven risk assessment culture - which ironically the commissioner would now be negligent to ignore - means you and I will be less well-protected in future by the police than we were in July 2005. This week's judgment tells those who try to save us to hold back. It leaves us collectively in the same position as the boy who was allowed to drown the other day because a police community support officer judged himself unqualified to plunge in to rescue him. This law is monstrously inappropriate to all the emergency services. Londoners are at much greater risk after this ruling.

Right, Martin; the first damn thing you learn on a first-aid course about drowning is DON'T JUMP IN THE WATER. There is a reason for this; if someone's drowning in the water there is quite probably a reason why they are drowning, and drowning yourself will not help them one bit. Your analogy is stupid.

Anyway, I refer your point to the reply I gave some moments ago.

In my view the good policing of London is ultimately more important to British justice than the De Menezes case. Blair can sometimes be a bit foolish. But he is answerable and accountable to the public in ways that few of his predecessors ever were.

He is so accountable, clearly, that he doesn't need to be accountable!

He is also, overall, the most important commissioner London has had since Robert Mark in the 1970s. Blair's neighbourhood policing strategy is the best thing that has happened to policing in modern times - and it is producing results for communities. Those who are trying to push Blair out are doing no favours to anyone except his enemies in the police and the press, who want to turn back the clock.

He's not seriously proposing that bobbies-on-the-beat-bollocks and ASBOs are so fantastic they outweigh coming to arrest one suicide bomber, killing an innocent man, and sticking up two more people with guns despite only having one suspect? Anyway, note an important point; what matters is not the dead guy, or even really the policing of London, but whether "his enemies in the police and the press" or Sir Ian come out on top. This is a classic piece of pundit wankerism; to be a good pundit, you have to believe at once that Westminster politics is absolutely crushingly, dominatingly important and also that it is irrelevant. The eyes of the world are on this restaurant, but the actual policy content of what is discussed there is of surpassing irrelevance.

What happened to De Menezes was awful. Yet, awful as it was, it was not as big an outrage as the bombers had in mind. Even the judge this week said it was an isolated breach in extraordinary circumstances. Yes, the police have occasionally got it wrong again in the aftermath - not least in the adversarial forum of the court. Maybe Blair should have gone to Stockwell soon after the killing and knelt in contrition, Willy Brandt-style, at the makeshift shrine that grew up outside the tube station. Maybe he still should.
Willy Brandt was a Social Democrat underground activist in Nazi Germany before he had to go into exile; he had a million times more courage, dignity, and spirit of public service than anyone in Britain today. This bit makes me want to vomit, but I'd love to know what such a repellent exercise in the pornography of grief would do for the Met's command and control system. If there is something to grieve for here, it's the great tradition of Robert Peel, the ideal of an unarmed, civilian, locally accountable investigative police force drawn from the people it polices.

Yet how many apologies will be enough? There must be a point when repeatedly going over a relatively isolated disaster like the Stockwell shooting must stop. Maybe that point has not quite arrived.

I remember this argument being made over every appalling act of state, going back to the Guildford Four, including all the great miscarriages of justice of the 1970s, BSE, arms to Iraq, Bloody Sunday...and quite often Martin Kettle writing leaders in the Guardian saying that they must be fought out to a finish. Note that even here, he's still unwilling to make a definite statement; maybe that point has not quite arrived.

But it is increasingly unclear whose interest beyond those of the conspiracy theorists and the victimologists is served by the process, especially when the costs may be underwritten by a Brazilian government that should put its own house in order - police in Rio state have killed 961 Brazilians in 2007 alone - before ours. Maybe it is tactless to remind readers that public opinion supports the shoot-to-kill-to-protect policy. But it is true. And it is another reason why it is in the interests of the public as well as the state for this debate, not Blair, to move on.
And this par is simply beneath contempt; which "conspiracy theorists", pray? The IPCC? Precisely how do the failings of the Rio police bear on this? Imagine if the firearms squad had got a different passenger, or perhaps the train driver they very nearly did kill; would Kettle argue it was quite all right because the Rio police are awful? This argument is merely code for "it doesn't matter; he was sort of black."

It's also worth pointing out that it has only ever been invoked by the Met's tireless anonymous briefers, just as "shoot-to-kill-to-protect" is a phrase that has only ever been used by Sir Ian Blair.

Update: I've just noticed that this is the sixth full-dress fisking I've directed at Martin Kettle in less than a year. Therefore, I've created a new blog category so as to keep all my Kettle content in an easily addressable form. Just click on the Kettle tag to view all of them in one crack-like hit.


Anonymous said...

A damn fine summing-up, save only this, attributing to Peel:

"unarmed, civilian, locally accountable investigative police force drawn from the people it polices."

Nice idea, but no - the Met Commissioner(s) was(were) accountable only to the Home Secretary between 1829 and 2000.

Chris Williams

ejh said...

Kettle. Swift to judgement himself, when it's the wrong sort of people.

You may have noted that despite his "on the one hand" ism, he believes "passionately" that the Met should appeal and win.

Anonymous said...

Go on email it to "Comment is Free"

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Martin "There Are No Easy Answers" Kettle. Ugh. Great stuff Alex.

The undertone here, as in Cohen's equally disgusting piece in the Observer about "immigrants" is an underlying desire for someone racist to come along and do all the things that I, cos I is a liberal, cannot do. Lots of people who were leftwingers in Africa in the 1970s but have gone Tebbitite have the tendency in concentrated form.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm a first aid trainer for St. John Ambulance.

Actually, the main reason why you don't enter water to save someone who's drowning is that drowning people tend to have erratic behaviour.

Either they'll injure you by flailing around, or else they'll cheerfully hold you underwater in order to be able to breathe themselves.

It's pretty irrelevant: it changes the thrust of your argument not one bit.

The Rioja Kid said...

But beware, for "such talk paves the way for a Le Pen or a Pinochet - or worse".

yup, Martin Kettle does in fact believe that criticism of the government is the first step on the road to throwing people out of helicopters. Like I say, it's the stink of wish-fulfillment failing to be masked with the deodorant of liberal concern-trolling.

ejh said...

There is a disturbingly endemic double assumption in the current conversation. Part one says that the principled, good and effective course of action is essentially obvious to right thinking people like us. Part two, umbilically linked, says that nothing done by politicians in general, and Blair in particular, is ever principled, good, or effective. Both parts are outrageously false, yet have become ever more pervasive, not least among journalists, with our self-image as truth-tellers in a world of secretive liars. Its apotheosis was the antiwar "not in my name" slogan.

That last line is extraordinary, isn't it? Because you think the government, which lied, told lies, you necessarily think that all politicians lie all the time.

Actually it strikes me that if'd thought that, we'd have been far more likely to stay in the saloon bar and say so, than to be outraged about it and marched through London.

A bizarre and dishonest conflation.

cian said...

Isn't clueless bashing of health and safety legislation a seal of Dacre? I trained as a lifeguard many years ago, and if I'd encountered the situation that the community support officers encountered I doubt I would have got in the water either (Ponds can be really dangerous). First rule of rescues - don't add yourself to the bodycount.

I couldn't quite see what Kettle was getting at with the comparison to Willy Brandt. Presumably the Guillaume affair, but how is that remotely comparable. Guillaume betrayed Brandt, who was appalled when he discovered. He took responsibility (and considered suicide, which I kind of doubt Blair has considered) for something that was neither his fault, or his responsibility. In contrast, Blair was responsible for the structure of the Met that led to this awful crime, helped try to destroy Menzies reputation in an attempt to save his own and has done nothing to make sure this won't happen again. Is this really a comparison Kettle wants to make?

That said, Kettle's such a boring writer I can't imagine many people actually bother to read his columns.

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