When even the police get stars in their eyes

More pay is far from the only sort of reward and public recognition that Britain’s celebrity-chasing police chiefs seem interested in today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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You can hardly scan your multimedia news service these days without coming across another big splash about them – careering from one sordid celebrity bash to another, seemingly out of control, not knowing what they are doing or why, apparently driven only by the need to be noticed by the public via the meejah that they affect to detest.

It would be bad enough if that description referred only to the usual suspects among the wannabe-celebs who dominate the gossip-obsessed parts of the media. But it is much worse than that. I am talking about the British police, and their fashionable preoccupation with making arresting PR stories.

Police demands for higher pay are currently big news. But more money is not the only kind of reward and public recognition that the policing authorities are looking for these days.

The days are long gone when the only policemen you ever saw on TV were the actors in series from Z-Cars to The Bill. Now the real old Bill cannot wait to storm the news studios, and will hardly venture out on a raid without being accompanied by a crack squad of media cameramen and reporters. Senior officers can look increasingly like contestants in a reality TV game of ‘Cop Idol’.

There are now chief constables who publish blogs about their daily lives. A former commander in London’s Metropolitan Police has been made the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for London mayor, promising to run mostly on his media-friendly ‘personality’ (not a feature one might always have associated with top Met officers). And in the day-to-day reality of policing, there is a discernible tendency to prioritise high-profile cases that might bring exposure and kudos rather than mere convictions.

Look at how the police in Cleveland have reacted to the strange case of the back-from-the-dead canoeist and his wife. To judge by their media strategy, that provincial police force has been loving every minute of its few weeks in the spotlight. Indeed, at times the police themselves have appeared to be acting more like tabloid reporters publicising the case. They even took the accused couple’s sons ‘into hiding’, just as a newspaper might do to protect its exclusive interview from rival outlets. It has brought to mind events of this time last year, when five women were murdered in the quiet East Anglian town of Ipswich, and the Suffolk police spokesman staged press conferences to tell the world how emotionally damaging the inquiry had been to his officers.

The police now seem to chase celebrities around almost as hard as the paparazzi do, often with farcical results. The collapse of the multimillion-pound horseracing corruption trial last week was only the latest example. The police and prosecutors involved in pursuing allegations of race-fixing seemed so starstruck by the chance to feel the collar of Keiron Fallon, our most famous flat racing jockey, that they went to court with a wheezing nag of a case that never had a 50-1 chance of success.

This was far from the first high-profile case where the authorities have allowed the stars in their eyes to get in the way of seeing gaping holes in the evidence. Five years ago the trial of Princess Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell, for allegedly pinching her dresses and other belongings, collapsed in similarly ignominious style. (That was when many of us discovered for the first time that the Met had a special unit devoted to celebrity cases.)

Since that debacle, however, the police have become even more devoted fans of celebrity cases. The failure of the horse-racing corruption trial is unlikely to stop the trend. Only last month, as part of a new inquiry into alleged corruption in football, they staged a dawn raid on the home of Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp. Harry – who also writes a column for the Sun – was not there, but several reporters and snappers from that paper were in attendance, invited along by the cops to record the intended arrest for the purposes of public titillation.

That PR stunt was one of many high-profile raids, arrests and inquiries which appear to be staged as much for media consumption as for policing purposes. The list stretches from the police intervening in reality TV shows (such as the Celebrity Big Brother racism row, or the protests about former pop star Pete Burns wearing a gorilla-fur coat on the same show), to the armed police raid on Amy Winehouse’s flat, or the arrival of two carloads of cops at Jose Mourhino’s home to quiz him about not putting his dog in quarantine. Are they all looking for autographs?

I wrote about this evolving phenomenon more than two years ago, when Kate Moss was investigated (but inevitably never charged) after being pictured apparently snorting cocaine in the papers – a case which suggested that, while it is no longer deemed illegal to take coke at parties, it is considered a serious offence to do so on the front page of the Daily Mirror. The officer in charge of the investigation made it clear that it was primarily motivated by the fame and public profile of those allegedly involved. It seems that the authorities are developing a habit of trying to use celebrities as ‘reverse role models’, holding them up as examples of the social ills against which the police must protect the nation’s youth.

And then, at the most serious end of this drift into policing-by-celebrity-culture, we arrive at the new enthusiasm for police interference in politics and the democratic process, as if it was up to them to decide who is fit to govern us.

It was recently reported that the police were being called upon to investigate the Labour Party’s latest ‘Donorgate’ scandal, so soon after their failed investigation into the loans-for-peerages allegations surrounding Tony Blair’s government. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News – alleged conscience of liberal Britain – concluded his report by asking viewers to ‘spare a thought tonight for the Metropolitan Police’, as if they would be dreading the prospect. He must be joking (except that he wasn’t, of course). The publicity-hunting police force would surely relish the opportunity of making history by grilling not one Labour prime minister, but two!

It was quickly reported that the same Met commander who had led the first probe into politics would also be running the Donorgate case. As Tim Hames noted in The Times during the loans-for-peers farce: ‘The Acting Assistant Commissioner’s past triumphs include the trial of Paul Burrell, butler to the Princess of Wales, which collapsed at the cost of £1.5million when it emerged that a key witness, the Queen, had not been approached (this may explain why so many interviews have been solicited this time) and the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? fraud trial that cost more than a prize that was never paid anyway and after which no one was imprisoned.’ Truly a policeman for the modern age.

All of this is the flipside of the crisis of traditional authority that the police, like every other state institution, have suffered in recent years. They have attempted to rebrand the police as a ‘service’ rather than a ‘force’, indulged in very public self-flagellation over being ‘institutionally racist’, and done everything possible to distance themselves from the old image of ‘the heavy mob’. But the loss of a clear sense of mission has often left the police appearing paralysed, a crisis of self-confidence well illustrated after the successful prosecution of the Met on health and safety grounds over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Uncertain of how to regain authority and fearful of the results of doing anything decisive, the police have often been reduced to staging the sort of high-profile PR stunts discussed here, to give the appearance of being in command. In this they have much in common with the politicians they are now pursuing. Nor should the politicians complain too much about that. After all, it was our insecure leaders who gave the police a higher political profile in the first place. So while the government tries to hide behind police advice to defend extending the terror laws, opposition MPs call in the police to investigate allegations of sleaze, hoping that the force can defeat the government for them.

Some of us have always been highly suspicious of the police, as an intrusive and armed body of the state. Now, however, we seem to have the worst of all worlds, where the police often appear paralysed in the face of threats to life and limb, but are keen to confiscate the news headlines and make raids on the turf of democracy in their search for new evidence that they have a public role.

In January 2003, Birmingham police raided the theatre where TV presenter and actor Matthew Kelly was appearing in the pantomime Peter Pan, and arrested him in the full glare of publicity over allegations of sexually abusing boys. His name was later cleared. Almost five years later, British policing itself appears to be becoming the stuff of celebrity panto.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume despaired of Donorgate, looked at how Tony Blair dealt with allegations of New Labour sleaze, argued that it was a scandal that the loans-for-peerages scandal was news and said the police should get out of politics. Brendan O’Neill commented on the arrest of Lord Levy and said that the House of Lords should be abolished. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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