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If they can break the law, why can't we?

Establishment bad behaviour weakens rule of law

Comment Lies, spin and establishment contempt for the rules by which the rest of the population are meant to live, are nothing new.

It is just possible, however, that the last few weeks have been a tipping point, with large swathes of the population now questioning just why they should adhere to the letter of the law when others don’t. More seriously, if this resentment spills over into active disobedience, then for a while at least, the British population may become just that bit less governable – with all the implications that may have for added costs of law enforcement.

It begins with spin. Over the last year, The Register may have given the impression that it is less than confident in the views expressed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham. One very definite flash point was his observation that it would not be impossible that "before you download something there is a symbol or wording which tells you what's in that content". He added: "It doesn't seem over-burdensome for these to be regulated".

For this we have taken him to task – frequently – interpreting his words as indication that he thinks that it is possible to categorise the billions of pages on the internet in a way that is even remotely akin to the classification systems applied to film. That, in turn, has led to some lively debate with his departmental press office, who will neither confirm nor deny such an interpretation.

As their spokesman puts it: "Those are his words. How you interpret them is up to you". We are not so sure about that. This is a tactic that politicians regularly adopt in public debate, setting out a proposition that is open to a range of interpretations – and then steadfastly refusing to be pinned down on what they actually mean.

It is arguably disrespectful to the public: Worse, it introduces a sense that it is perfectly acceptable to obfuscate and duck responsibility for personal utterances – a trend that is exacerbated in everyday life by the widespread use of automated customer service centres and service staff not allowed to deviate from their pop-up script.

A far more dangerous piece of rhetoric was let loose on the British public by Deputy Prime Minister, and trained lawyer, Harriet Harman MP. In response to question by Andrew Marr in his politics programme on 1 March, she said of the controversial pension awarded to Fred Goodwin, former chief executive at Royal Bank of Scotland: "It might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the government steps in".

That phrase – the "court of public opinion" - may eventually be her political epitaph. Whilst it plays well to the gallery and is qualified by the caveat that "this is where the government steps in", it introduces a dangerous expectation of populism to the political debate, as well as a challenge to any and every slightly unpopular measure the government wishes to introduce.

What, for instance, has the court of public opinion to say on issues such as ID cards? The policing of photography? Phorm? Not to mention MP’s expenses and the recently discovered practice of "flipping". What, too, has it to say about those individuals who have reacted to the expenses row by hurling bricks through the window of their local MP's surgery?

It is, however, in the area of policing that on-going and deep damage is in the process of being done to respect for the law. This week we reported the case of Colin Port, Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police, who has gone public with his own populist rhetoric, proclaiming his willingness to go to prison before obeying a court order. Our own investigation suggests the matter is more complex than the simplistic "court sides with paedophile" spin provided by the Sun.

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