Gun Crime Summit as PM redoubles efforts

February 22, 2007

MacBeth (witches)Tony Blair had become more involved in domestic issues this week. He has increasingly taken the lead from John Reid in attempts to deal with gun crime. He also found himself directly involved in a consultation process on road taxing policy which demonstrates the rising impact of information technology in the political process.

Prime Minister Blair has recently been attracting less media attention than has his heir apparent, Gordon Brown. This week he appears to have moved more centre stage again. While there has been some attention paid to military stories around troop withdrawals from Iraq, he seems to have taken renewed interest in domestic affairs. Today he takes change of a Government initiative following last week’s spate of murderous gun crimes. Home Secretary John Reid appears in a secondary role, as he joins with Mr Blair today in what has inevitably been dubbed a gun summit.

The meeting brings together community leaders, politicians, police, victim family-members to an open-agenda meeting at Downing Street. The format has been signaled as a kind of brainstorming.

The Genie out of the bottle

The Prime Minister has also less willingly found himself dealing with the consequences of an experiment in electronic democracy. People were invited to submit petitions to Downing Street. Over a million did, on the subject of a proposed road taxing policy, road in a demonstration of the power of the internet to mobilize public opinion. The innovative approach has certainly offered a lesson in the dynamics of e-consultation. The invitation was couched in terms that provided an opportunity for individuals to voice fears and opposition to change, rather than one for discussion, debate, collaborate problem-solving, and so on.

Seems like a good thing to me. It’s already focused Ministerial attention on the significance of preparing the public better for any change process. The talk now is of clarifying the misconceptions that have been used to mobilize opinion against the proposed policy. Learning is taking place… about the followers we deserve.

The Genie of democratic consultation is out of the bottle. One consequence has been described as Mr Blair sending emails to over a million people. Well OK, a single carefully crafted email will go out to the millions of email addresses connected with the petition. Will the email invite further dialog?

Blair’s last leadership acts?

Tony Blair appears as an increasingly besieged leader, confronting a host of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Another Shakespearian drama. But which one? Perhaps more Julius Caesar than Hamlet, with just the slightest of echoes of MacBeth and King Lear?


Elephant dust, Police enquiries and the Presumption of innocence

December 31, 2006

The police leadership in the recent Suffolk Murder investigations has been widely commended. It left me pondering on the nature of police enquiries, and the absolute and ultimate necessity of the presumption of innocence in all such cases. The old story of elephant dust turns out to have surprising relevance to the argument.

The Suffolk murders

Over the last few months, the brutal murder of five young women has dominated the headlines nationally and internationally. The headlines stopped under legal embargo after a suspect was arrested and charged with all five murders.

One blogger raised concerns over the media treatment of the case. On further reflection, I began to see the ultimate necessity for the presumption of innocence in any legal case. It is acutely relevant for murder cases.

Elephant dust

Stay with me while I introduce the elephant dust. An old joke actually helped me work my way through this issue. The story takes place on a train in those long-gone days of private compartments.

A traveller gets on, and notices that the only other occupant of the compartment is behaving strangely. From time to time, he takes out a little silver box and sprinkles something around the carriage.

“What are you doing” asks the curious traveller.
“I’m sprinkling this special dust. It’s to keep the elephants away” his travelling companion tells him.
“But the nearest elephant is miles away”


“You see! Elephant dust works really well, doesn’t it?”

Back to Police investigations

Suppose the Police trying to solve a serious a major crime were to go in for sprinkling a little elephant dust? This is how we might translate the old joke.

The police arrest someone and charge the suspect with the crime. “What are you doing?” asks observers of the scene. “We are stopping the perpetrator of these heinous crimes from any more wrong-doing”, say the Police, sprinkling a little elephant dust around.

In time, despite embargoes on further reporting, questions then continue to be asked. “Can you be sure you have caught the real criminal?” Sprinkle sprinkle. “…Well, since we made the arrest, the crimes have stopped. That proves our elephant dust is working.”

Or does it?

Having pursued this particular metaphorical elephant thus far, I was struck by a further thought Maybe the Police have a cast-iron case and have caught the right person. They do not have to point to the fact that the crimes have stopped. The anxieties of the public gradually subside. So they are not deluded sprinklers of elephant dust, they really have kept the elephant away.

And yet, there is another possibility. Suppose the real criminal is still at large? He (probably a he in the case we started from) has to deal with the changed circumstances. In some circumstances he may be in sufficient control over his behaviour to figure out he would be well advised to stop his modus operandi. That way, the rest of the world would go on believing in the elephant dust theory.

The presumption of innocence

Which brings me to the presumption of innocence. We have outlined why an arrest, and subsequent cessation of crimes with the appropriate signatures, do not prove that the suspect is the criminal. We have to fall back on the presumption of innocence, lest we fall into the elephant trap, of believing in elephant dust.

A more hideous possibility

Having taken the flight of fancy this far, I now face a more hideous possibility. The arrest of a plausible and innocent suspect may well be a success in stopping the original criminal committing crimes, at least for a period. This is scary elephant dust indeed. How should we feel about this as citizens. Would we settle for such a temporary ‘solution’ to the problem if it cuts down on a series of murders?

I have had some contact with police procedures over a period of years. No officer has ever suggested in any way that such a strategy has been carried out, or even considered. So there we go. It’s all a lot of elephant dust. But what if it really is keeping elephants away? As in most police enquiries, I seem to have raised a lot of questions.

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man. There is very little in the public domain on which to judge. The presumption of innocence can operate alongside an assessment that the Police investigation has been conducted in good faith, and has led to an arrest on grounds adequate to mount a prosecution. The point of concern raised by blogger PC reminds us that the Police arrested two suspects and released one around whom a lot of circumstantial evidence did seem to be gathering. This suggests that the Police believe their case to be stronger for the person whom they eventually charged. My point is a more conceptual one, indicating why, regardless of appearances, Police and Public alike have to be so rigorous in honouring the presumption of innocence.