Of politicians and the free press in a democracy
We have the power to elect or remove politicians, but how much does our good opinion matter to them? This is what I wondered when I read British politician Andrew Mitchell’s autobiography on a flight to London
Have you ever chosen to read a book for one specific reason only to find you end up admiring it for quite another? It happened to me earlier this month when I chose a Cambridge chum’s recently published autobiography for company on a nine-hour flight to London. Andrew Mitchell was a member of David Cameron’s cabinet destined to climb the heights. He’d been offered the defence ministry but preferred to continue as secretary of state for international development because of a deep commitment to the subject. Then tragedy struck.
Wheeling his bicycle out of Downing Street, he got into an altercation with the police. It lasted less than a minute. They alleged he called one of them an “effing pleb” and it became the scandal of the day. The media made it a cause celebre. Andrew’s denial seemed to convince no one. Not even Cameron. Andrew was asked to resign. But it wasn’t just his political career that collapsed. A libel suit he filed against The Sun failed to find favour with the judge. Andrew ended up paying two million pounds.
Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey tells the story of that dreadful experience. Andrew doesn’t demur with the judge’s ruling. He accepts it. But he does provide convincing evidence — made public in a subsequent Channel Four documentary — that suggests he did not speak the offending words. Indeed, even the evidence of an alleged eyewitness, which initially suggested he had, turned out to be a fabrication.
Andrew’s mistake, which he readily accepts, was to not let matters rest after the Channel Four documentary effectively exonerated him. “Had I decided to walk away at this point, my reputation could have been restored. Suing The Sun for libel turned out to be a fatal mistake.” The judge concluded “on balance of probabilities that Mr Mitchell did speak the words alleged or something so close to them as to amount to the same”.
Andrew’s chapter on this self-inflicted disaster was the high point till I got to the last page. It’s what he writes about the need for a free press — though he suffered at its hands and, remember, it cost him his job — that overshadows everything else. As I read his words on a plane fast approaching London, I felt they also need to be heard in Delhi. Though Andrew wrote with his British colleagues in mind, they apply as much, if not more, to Indian politicians.
“An unruly, disrespectful, cynical and cacophonous press corps is the price we pay for our freedoms and is essential for exposing bad behaviour and even wickedness and corruption amongst the wealthy and powerful.”
Andrew admits “this can be uncomfortable”, as it certainly was for him, but then adds: “In discussions at the most senior levels in Downing Street, fear of how an issue could be portrayed on the front page of a British newspaper acted as an important restraint in the best interests of us all. The free press is in my view more important in sustaining our individual liberties than judges, the police or politicians.”
Now, do our politicians at the most senior levels, whether at Lok Kalyan Marg or South Block, fear how an issue could be portrayed on the front page of an Indian newspaper? And could that be “an important restraint in the best interests of us all?” To ask is to answer the question. The sad but increasingly undeniable truth is our politicians don’t care. That’s because, except in a few rare cases, public opinion doesn’t carry the same weight in India as it does in Britain.
This is perhaps the true limitation of our democracy. No doubt we have the power to elect or remove politicians, but how much does our good opinion matter to them? As long as they can be certain of our vote, which they secure with their ability to deliver what others cannot, they don’t care what we think of them.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal