In the Media

A wounding blow to the public's trust

PUBLISHED July 21, 2012

If you instinctively support our police force, as I do, then the career of Pc Simon Harwood, acquitted last week of the manslaughter of the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, poses a serious problem. Finding Mr Tomlinson standing in his way in the middle of a disturbance, Harwood shoved him and hit him hard on the back of the legs with his truncheon. Mr Tomlinson fell to the ground, but got up again and staggered off, only to collapse soon afterwards and die.

It is upsetting to watch the footage of Mr Tomlinson's movements that day: he was obviously just trying to get home while stumbling unwittingly to his own demise. He was by all accounts a decent and non-violent man, although his life had been marred by alcoholism.

Juries are notoriously reluctant to convict policemen for actions carried out in the line of duty, something which I fully understand. We regularly send our police into unpredictable and dangerous situations, in which split-second decisions can have lasting consequences, and it seems unfair to expect them to adhere to the delicate judgments which we might make from the comfort of an office chair. We do not, however, expect them to act in an irrationally aggressive way. In this case, Harwood's behaviour seemed to many onlookers an unnecessarily powerful response to an irritation. Mr Tomlinson never seemed a threat: he was simply not getting out of Harwood's way quickly enough.

In this case, the fact that Harwood had hit Tomlinson was not in dispute: the jury had to decide whether it was the cause of the man's death, and - presented with conflicting medical evidence - a majority eventually decided to acquit. What the jury did not know about was Harwood's disciplinary record. His career has been dogged by allegations (though only one was upheld), including that he had punched, throttled, kneed or threatened other suspects while in uniform.

In January 2004, a fellow officer brought a complaint against Harwood over his behaviour during a raid at a flat. Two officers said they saw him grab a suspect, "BE", by the throat, punch him, and push him so hard into a table that it broke. BE went on to injure another policeman, Pc Newman, but Newman was still so shocked at Harwood's behaviour that he reported it, telling his seniors: "I know BE is an a------e, but I would say that he was merely defending himself."

There is something touching in that blunt assessment: Pc Newman had no liking whatsoever for BE, but he was concerned with proper policing, and conscious of the need to behave correctly. Harwood, in contrast, was a policing disaster waiting to happen on an even bigger scale. The Met now admits that "detailed information regarding the officer's misconduct history was not shared at key points" and "we got that wrong". He should not even have been present on that fateful day when Mr Tomlinson was making his unsteady way home.

There is, broadly, a bond of trust between the British police and the public, which the Pc Newmans of this world seek to strengthen. We should be grateful for it: many countries do not have it at all. Even at university, I disliked those middle-class students who paraded fashionably anti-police views. I knew that if they were burgled or mugged they would be straight on the phone to the so-called "pigs". Yet every time a member of the public has a bad experience at the hands of a police officer like Pc Harwood, it not only damages that trust, but also makes things twice as hard for his fellow officers.

In many other countries, the sight of a slow-moving man being batoned by police would not raise an eyebrow. We should be glad that, in Britain, it does. We should be gladder still, however, if those who show a propensity to break that faith were stopped a little earlier in their tracks.

The dark side of the silver screen

One of the poignant details of the devastating incident in Aurora, Denver, in which 24-year-old James Holmes shot 70 people, killing 12, at a midnight screening of the new Batman film, is that at first the audience thought the attack was part of the film. Seconds later, it became clear that a masked gunman was walking through Film Theatre 9, casually shooting people, including children, as he went.

Who knows why a murderer targets defenceless people? In this case, it is not the fault of the film, of course, but of the killer. But there has been a peculiarly unpleasant air of hysteria around the opening of The Dark Knight Rises. Critics who disliked the film have received death threats from overzealous "fanboys". Now a masked murderer has targeted film-goers at a movie about a masked murderer wreaking civic destruction. It is reported that Holmes cast himself as the Joker character from the previous Batman film: such "shooters" tend to have an acute, if warped, sense of their own drama.

The Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan have been feted for their realistic depiction of terror, but last week demonstrated yet again that the reality of terror is quite different. In life, unlike the movies, the perpetrators tend simply to be unhinged introverts, and the plight of the victims is so intensely sad that, having seen it once, you would never, ever want to watch it again.

One more time, with a little less feeling

Madonna's Hyde Park concert last week has triggered snippy comments about how, at 53, she is too old to be flashing her fishnetted bottom. Yet the performer is still in fine shape, and I suspect she simply has a dancer's practical attitude towards revealing her body, coupled with a showgirl's exhibitionist streak.

Still, her show should move on, simply because the routine itself is tired. Madonna herself invented the stage role of the dominatrix surrounded by young musclemen, and many other female singers since have copied it, from Rihanna to Lady Gaga. What once seemed avant-garde is now overly familiar: the swearing, the crotch-grabbing, and the underwear as outerwear no longer raise eyebrows, but a sense of déjà vu.

Two things seem valued above all in America: hard work and being seen as "hot", which is generally interpreted as looking young, fit and sexually attractive. Madonna has relentlessly applied the former to the latter, but it's a game with diminishing returns. She should relax, and reinvent herself in the European tradition of the faintly naughty grande dame: after all, she's been famous long enough to know that stars generate their own heat.