A Tale of Two Ministers – and how the media played a part in their downfall
Readers not based in the UK may have difficulty following the stories of what happened to two serving ministers of the UK’s coalition government. So please bear with me while I try to explain …
Minister No. 1: Chris Huhne
Many years ago, Chris Huhne’s car was caught speeding. In the UK, this offence earns the driver a fine, plus an automatic 3 points penalty on his or her licence to drive. Get 12 points on your licence and you lose it for a while. If Chris Huhne, a Liberal MP at the time, had confessed to being the driver of the speeding car, he would have lost his driving licence. Instead, he arranged for his wife to take the penalty points. This is against the law.
Fast forward to 2012. By then, Chris Huhne was Energy Minister in the Conservative/Liberal coalition and had separated from his wife in favour of his secretary. His wife, Vicky Pryce, approached the Sunday Times, saying that she wanted to expose the fact that Chris Huhne, many years ago, had convinced another person to accept responsibility for a speeding offence, to avoid a driving ban.
According to the Sunday Times, the paper knew, but didn’t reveal, that this ‘other person’ was, in fact, his wife, and warned her that what she was doing could well lead to consequences for herself. With the help of the Sunday Times, Vicky Pryce tried, unsuccessfully, to trap Chris Huhne into admitting what he had done in a series of testy taped phone calls. Eventually (again, according to the Sunday Times), Vicky Pryce lost patience and approached another paper, the Daily Mail. It wasn’t long afterwards that the full story broke that it was the wife, Vicky Pryce herself, who had taken the points. Stories appeared in the UK press under headlines like: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”.
Although Chris Huhne vehemently denied the accusation, he resigned as a minister but stayed on as an MP, pending a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service whether or not to proceed to a court case.
Minister No. 2: Andrew Mitchell
Until last October, Andrew Mitchell was Chief Whip for the conservatives. One evening he left Downing Street on his bicycle. As he approached the gates at the end of the road, which were guarded by two policemen, he was involved in an exchange of words with the officers. The result was that Andrew Mitchell had to wheel his bicycle through a side gate, which annoyed him.
Somebody leaked to the press that the minister had referred to the policemen as ‘plebs’, a derogatory term overloaded with connotations of upper-class snobbery. The implication was that a serving minister of the crown looked down on the police force. The tabloids and even the broadsheets went into a frenzy, stoked by outraged comments by senior police officers. No part of the media seemed to be interested in finding out what actually happened, simply siding (almost entirely) with the police. Andrew Mitchell admitted to losing his temper, but denied using the word ‘plebs’. However, when a detailed transcription of the alleged conversation was leaked, backed up by an emailed confirmation from a ‘passer-by’, who claimed to have witnessed the incident, the writing was on the wall for the embattled minister. He resigned, still maintaining that he had not said the words he was accused of.
It was only then that a Channel 4 News investigation looked into the matter and presented a very convincing case that Andrew Mitchell had been ‘set up’. A CCTV tape showed that there simply was not enough time for the conversation to have taken place, as detailed by the police, and there was no sign of a passer-by.
You can read a good summary of the Andrew Mitchell situation here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/dec/23/plebgate-andrew-mitchell-police-stitch-up.
Chris Huhne maintained that he was innocent right up until he was due to go on trial, when he admitted that he had been lying. Both he and Vicky Pryce were sentenced to 8 months in prison, but released after 8 weeks. More detail here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/may/13/chris-huhne-vicky-pryce-prison.
The Andrew Mitchell affair continues to bring up new revelations, but it appears that the police have been guilty of manufacturing a situation for their own pseudo-political purposes, then trying to cover this up. The mysterious ‘passer-by’ witness turned out to be a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, and not a ‘member of the public’ as he had first been described. Andrew Mitchell’s claim that he was the victim of a ‘stitch-up’ now seems very likely to be true.
So, the minister who was lying all along was given the space by the UK media to decide his own fate, resigning of his own accord as minister, and then resigning as an MP once he had been charged. The minister who has almost certainly been telling the truth all along was forced from office, and is only now beginning the process of political rehabilitation.
I invite you to draw your own conclusions from these two significantly different treatments of serving ministers by the UK press. Once again, the media have “influenced events” – both through what they do, and what they choose not to do.