The increasingly close ties between leading politicians and journalists in Britain have been to the detriment of the public interest

The British press, from the Sun to the Telegraph and most points in between, were quick to castigate the Crown Prosecution Service for its attacks on the ‘free press’ after the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks and despite the conviction of Andy Coulson. There are no winners in this case, writes Mick Temple. Neither the press, police nor politicians emerge well from the hacking trial.

So now we know. The ‘wicked witch’ was not wicked after all – just ignorant. Rebekah Brooks was so unaware of  the methods employed by journalists under her command that we shall have to reassess the well-founded stereotype of the all-knowing editor with their fingers on the pulse of their newspaper. Innocent of the charges against her, are we to conclude that she was merely one of the most incompetent editors Fleet Street has ever seen?

 

Apparently unaware of this reading of events, Rebekah Brooks left court feeling, in her own words, ‘vindicated’ by the jury’s decision that she was innocent of hacking telephones, perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to pay public officials. And our national newspapers felt equally vindicated.

 

Despite former News of the World editor Andy Coulson being found guilty of conspiracy to hack voicemails, the British press, from the Sun to the Telegraph and most points in between, were quick to castigate the Crown Prosecution Service for its attacks on the ‘free press’. The Daily Telegraph’s editorial trumpeted that Brooks’ not guilty verdict was a ‘devastating blow’ to those who have attempted to ‘besmirch’ all newspapers with the bad practices of some journalists.

 

The Sun’s front page proclaimed a ‘Great Day for Redtops’. But for most of us long-term observers and supporters of the British press – and I must add, opponents of press regulation – there was little to celebrate. In addition to Coulson, let’s not forget that a number of people employed by the News of the World have already admitted or been found guilty of phone hacking, and that two dozen journalists, mostly from the Murdoch press, are still awaiting trial on comparable charges.

 

Image: Duncan C (CC BY-NC)

 

The press also made a lot of the huge cost of the trial, at the expense of ‘terrorist’ and ‘paedophile’ investigations. For the Daily Mail, this ‘disproportionality’ of the police response was led by ‘the left-leaning Guardian’ and a ‘handful of tabloid-hating celebrities’. The result was that the ‘public purse has paid the most outrageous price for politicking and expedience’.

 

In truth, neither the press, police nor politicians emerge well from this trial. The police directed unprecedented resources at this case, for their critics far beyond an appropriate level. Their own wrongdoing appears to have been largely swept under an increasingly grubby carpet.

 

Our newspapers, and not just the redtops, have suffered a considerable blow to their already dreadful public image. The press, still resisting the post-Leveson calls for statutory press regulation from pressure groups such as Hacked Off, have retreated to the ‘few bad apples’ defence which was formerly the exclusive property of our police force.  As some of us predicted in the immediate wake of Leveson, don’t hold your breath waiting for press regulation. It won’t happen now.

 

But perhaps it is the image of politicians, and in particular that of the prime minister, that has fared the worse. And our newspapers have been quick to try and swivel the spotlight onto political malpractice. On the day after Ms Brooks was found innocent and Coulson guilty, the increasingly critical Daily Mail focused on the consequences for David Cameron: as its front page headline starkly put it, the verdict on Coulson was ‘Humiliation for Cameron’.

 

Adding further to the pressure on him, the Guardian’s Nick Davies alleged last week that David Cameron had misled the Leveson Inquiry with his account of the appointment and vetting of Andy Coulson. Mr Cameron has also been publicly criticised to an unprecedented degree by the trial judge. The prime minister’s apology for believing Andy Coulson’s lies to him when he appointed him as chief spin doctor was made while the jury was still deliberating on charges of conspiracy against Coulson.

 

To coin a cliché, there are no winners in this case. Despite their triumphant response to Rebekah Brooks’ innocence, a section of the press has been exposed as even more vicious and sleazy than we suspected. Our police have been exposed as at best incompetent and at worse corrupt. And our politicians, most damagingly of all, our prime minister, have been clearly shown to lack essential judgement. Despite many warnings from those who knew, the prime minister allowed a corrupt and mendacious journalist into the heart of government.

 

While I concur with The Economist’s judgement of the Leveson Report as decidedly ‘mediocre’, Leveson’s central message was clear and indisputable. The relationship between British politicians and journalists needs to change. Senior politicians have for too long responded like Pavlov’s dogs to the temporary obsessions of newspapers like the Sun and Daily Mail, and are so afraid of powerful press barons like Rupert Murdoch that they openly court their approval and support in return for policy pay-offs. Our politicians maintain a belief in the king-making powers of the British press, whose influence on the public is in all probability far less than frequently claimed.

 

The evidence presented to Leveson showed a relationship corrupted by mutual suspicion and cynicism in which the public have been the chief losers. In a democracy, the exchange of information between journalists and politicians is both necessary and inevitable but the increasingly close ties between leading politicians and journalists in Britain have been to the detriment of the public interest. The public sphere has been poisoned by a ‘daily drip-feed of falsehood and distortion’, as Nick Davies so aptly puts it.

 

If we believe that an informed population is essential to democracy, then public trust in our press is crucial. If the electorate’s perception of both the press and politics is predominantly of worlds inhabited by the devious, ill-informed, corrupt or incompetent, they are unlikely to believe political news reporting and far less likely to engage in any meaningful political activity. Declining electoral participation rates, falling party memberships and unprecedently low levels of public trust in both politicians and journalists do not suggest a thriving political public sphere. Although our newspapers are only one factor, they have contributed to the decline.

 

But perhaps the biggest danger to our public institutions is not the aura of sleaze that the last few years have fostered. The appearance of incompetence is potentially far more damaging. For example, Bill Clinton’s competence turned out to be more important to the American public than his somewhat sleazy personal life.

 

We appear to have an incompetent political class, exemplified by the inappropriate appointments and friendships of David Cameron and his knee-jerk response to the trial; an incompetent police force whose failure to investigate the original allegations of press (and police) corruption contributed to an even bigger scandal; and an incompetent press where the owners, executives and editors of some of our major newspapers seemed unable to comprehend the corruption within their own empires.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/politicians-and-journalists-in-britain/

 

 

 

I’ll always be grateful to the GP who eased Mum’s pain – even if it hastened her death

By Nick Maes

Nick Maes's mum Wil lived with a diagnosis of dementia for three yearsNick Maes’s mum Wil lived with a diagnosis of dementia for three years

Earlier this month, Dr William Lloyd Bassett, a Shropshire GP, was hauled in front of a disciplinary panel at the General Medical Council.

It was alleged that he’d deliberately hastened the death of a terminally-ill man by giving him a huge dose of morphine.

The case made headlines across the country, and prompted debate about the fine and treacherous line between aiding a patient in distress and hastening death.

But for me, this case was especially shocking. For I had witnessed Dr Bassett in action: he gave my mother morphine as she was about to die.

The recent General Medical Council hearing centred on an incident in May 2009 when Dr Bassett went to the home of a man dying from lung cancer and treated him with a high dose of diamorphine.

This led to him being questioned over his fitness to practise; a serious charge that could have ended his career.

Crucially, though, the family of the man who died would have nothing to do with the charges against him, and supported Dr Bassett 100 per cent in his actions.

The patient had become deeply distressed in his final hours. Although Dr Bassett accepted that the 100mg dose of morphine was too high and a mistake, it led, in all likelihood, to a more peaceful death

Last week, the hearing decided that Dr Bassett should continue to practise, but issued a warning of serious misconduct against his name.

Such cases mean many GPs are now nervous about administering pain relief to people in the final hours of life, in case they find themselves in a situation similar to Dr Bassett’s.

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, agrees that doctors are frightened to administer powerful opiate drugs.

‘It’s very difficult for doctors to offer palliative care because of the threat of manslaughter charges should the patient die soon afterwards. When one hears of a patient dying after a dose of morphine, there’s a sense of relief that you’re not the one who has administered it.’

Dr William Bassett gave Wil morphine as she was about to dieDr William Bassett gave Wil morphine as she was about to die

But after witnessing Dr Bassett at work in a similar situation as he attended my dying mother three years ago, I can only thank him for his caring, professional intervention.

At 83, my mother Wil — the name she was known by to all her family and friends — had been living with a diagnosis of dementia for three years.

Yet she managed to remain at home because of the stalwart support of her family, and carers who came in a couple of times each day.

Mum was determined to stay put. That was her resilient, forthright character — some would call it bloody mindedness, but it made her who she was.

When a social worker pushed for her to enter a home, the idea was swiftly rejected — by Mum and by us as a family. She’d cling to her staunch independence, a trait compounded by losing her husband Arthur nearly 40 years earlier.

But Wil’s general health was suddenly complicated as her vital organs began to fail: heart failure, water retention, high blood pressure and immobility intensified the problems.

Our family GP had no sure way of telling how long she might live, although it was suggested she might survive for another two weeks.

Mum’s condition rapidly deteriorated. Within 24 hours, she looked intensely frail and was hallucinating.

But that evening she seemed to rally. She sat up in bed and enjoyed an impromptu party, drinking brandy, laughing and chatting with all those closest to her.

Mum loved a good party and I think secretly enjoyed being the centre of this particular one. Our spirits were raised, even though we sensed, deep down, this would be the final stage of her illness.

At midnight, as my three sisters and I prepared Mum for bed, she had a seizure. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, her body became a dead-weight and any colour that might have been there drained from her complexion. It was as if she’d imploded.

We eased Mum back into bed, tacitly understanding the end was close. Yet none of us really quite knew what to do. We’re not a foolish or mawkish family by nature, yet confronted by our mother’s inexorable slide towards death we found ourselves helpless.

It was eventually decided to call Shropdoc, the local out-of-hours doctor’s service. Dr Bassett isn’t our family doctor; it was sheer luck that he happened to be on call that night. His response was quick, and after examining Mum he suggested sending for an ambulance.

Nick Maes, aged four, with his mum WilNick Maes, aged four, with his mum Wil

We didn’t want Wil to go to hospital; there was no logical reason to send her. Dr Bassett respected our wishes and left, urging us to call again if there were any change.

We took it in turns to sit with Mum. But as the night drew on, Wil became restless, pointing into space, trying to shift her tiny frame off the bed. Mum’s agitation and distress became more marked and then she was sick.

At 4am we called Shropdoc again and Dr Bassett returned. It was obvious that neither I nor my sisters knew what we were doing. Dr Bassett’s presence was a huge reassurance to us, and more importantly to Mum, towards whom he was compassionate. He was with us for an hour all told and his manner was exemplary.

He spoke with Mum as she drifted in and out of semi-consciousness, asking her how he could help. Eventually he suggested that she might like morphine as a drip and as an oral dosage to ease her pain and relax her. (Wil hadn’t had any other medication until that point.)

Mum was unequivocal and nodded agreement. Wil was a woman who’d always said she wasn’t afraid of death, and now her old resilience flashed back. I felt an innate sense of relief, as did my sisters, that a decision had been made and a course of action taken.

Dr Bassett didn’t shy away from explaining what would happen, not to Mum nor to us, her children. The morphine would calm her and relax her; as the drug worked she’d probably slip away with less fight, drifting inescapably into a deep sleep.

He attached a line to Wil’s leg and placed the morphine drip-feed device on the dressing table — an incongruous addition to the knick-knackery of mirrors, perfume and jewellery usually found there.

Ensuring Mum was comfortable, Dr Bassett slipped quietly out of the house, leaving us to sit and gently talk with her.

The morphine quickly took effect, and she drifted off into a calm and deep sleep. We sat around her bed, holding her hands, stroking her hair, reminiscing about the marvellous times we’d had together and telling her how much we loved her.

Just after 9am the next day — a little over five hours later — Mum stopped breathing; she’d died with dignity and in peace.

The nature of her death was due to Dr Bassett’s seemly and humane intervention.

Her suffering had been minimal and she’d had the great good fortune to die in her own bed surrounded by all of her children.

Because of this experience, I’m under no illusion that assistance for those in the final stages of dying should, if requested, be given by doctors without fear of reprisal.

I’m not advocating wholesale euthanasia, or ending life along the lines practised at centres such as Dignitas in Switzerland. But when life is undeniably ebbing away, it is surely our responsibility, as a kind and caring society, to alleviate unnecessary suffering.

Doctors are rightly governed by a strict code of conduct. Key to the principles of medical ethics is that the doctor acts in the best interest of the patient. This would include giving pain relief to ease the suffering of the dying patient.

But this action can conflict with another key principle: do no harm. Even small doses of morphine suppress breathing, and there is a point where adequate doses may, inevitably, stop the breathing.

Dr Clare Gerada explains: ‘There’s no guidance regarding the amounts of diamorphine to be used on patients. This is because some cancers require hundreds of milligrams and others maybe just 10 or 20. It makes it very difficult for doctors because it’s difficult to predict.

‘Morphine is a very good drug, not because it kills people, but because it calms people down; and in the case of lung cancer makes it easier to breathe.’

Yet I would argue that if someone was on the verge of death, then what difference would alleviating the pain and hastening the inevitable make?

It’s a pragmatic approach, due in no small way to the practical influence of my mother.

‘We all have to go at some time,’ my mother would say. ‘No exceptions. There’s nothing to be scared of.’

Of course, the real fear is of dying in anguish. But the use of morphine to ease this fear still conjures up — almost unavoidably — awful memories of Dr Harold Shipman.

However, we shouldn’t make these nervous connections and demonise the drug. It’s vital that we have open and honest dialogues with GPs, patients and families in order to make informed decisions.

Until recently, it was common knowledge that the family GP, when tending the dying at home, might help shorten the suffering with morphine.

Maybe this was more an implicit arrangement — an unofficial, yet profoundly caring intervention that was acknowledged but not openly talked about.

Perhaps in previous generations there was a greater level of interaction between doctor and patient than we have today.

Each year, approximately half a million people die in Britain. A recent report from the think-tank Demos shows two-thirds of us would like to die in the peaceful and familiar surroundings of our own homes.

This is an infinitely preferable option to the noisy and frightening environments found in over-stretched and busy hospitals.

Yet, in reality, barely 18 per cent actually manage to achieve this last wish — which equates to more than 190,000 dying in hospital each year when they would rather die at home.

The Dying for Change report suggests that by 2030, just one in ten will have the opportunity to die at home.

Charles Leadbeater, the report’s co-author, said: ‘It’s not just that we’re living longer; part of this means that people are dying over a longer period, losing first their memory and then their physical capacities in stages.

‘If we put in the right kind of supports for people to cope at home, many tens of thousands of people could have a chance of achieving what they want at the end of life; to be close to their family and friends, to find a sense of meaning in death.’

From sitting in those final moments with my mother, I know nothing is as intimate or as personal as being with someone as they die. It is a great and intensely private honour.

And when my time comes, I can only fervently hope that someone as caring and as compassionate as Dr Bassett will be at my bedside.

Labour needs to take a look in the mirror on civil liberties

This morning, Nick Clegg made a speech on civil liberties, the sound of the left gloating as the deputy prime minister stumbled over control orders drowning out his critique of Labour’s authoritarian instinct; Mike Harris, a contributor to Big Brother Watch’s ‘The state of civil liberties in modern Britain’, reports

The gloating is an instinct I remember well when I worked for a Labour MP as our government attempted to bring in 90 days’ detention. Even my meagre bag-carrying at the time made me feel complicit in something immoral. Labour friends would shrug their shoulders in bars as we discussed where it all went wrong: the party who had Roy Jenkins as home secretary also managed to accommodate former Stalinist John Reid.

Ed-MilibandBut Labour was possessed by a group-think that imagined the civil liberties agenda was a minority pursuit by a radical Hampstead fringe; that to be in favour of protecting liberties against baser gut instincts was, in itself, a sign of moral weakness: of political frailty.

The reference to John Reid’s Stalinism is deliberate. Many of our friends in the Labour movement’s politics arose not from Methodism but Marxism. Their vision for government was not as a regulator or provider of goods, but as a totality, the State as the rational omnigod. As Francesa Klug said at last year’s Compass conference this

“… intellectual tradition never really saw the problem with the state – provided it was in the right, or rather left, hands.”

It was Ed Miliband’s dad, Ralph, who warned socialists of the danger that the state had it in the potential to be an oppressive force in ‘The State in Capitalist Society’. Whilst Labour did much in government to make Britain more tolerant, we also made painful mistakes.

Clegg opened his speech with a powerful salvo, which is worth reading:

“Ed Balls has admitted that, when it comes to civil liberties, Labour got the balance wrong. Ed Miliband has conceded that his government seemed too casual about people’s freedom.

“But there was nothing casual about introducing ID cards. Nothing casual about building the biggest DNA database in the world, and storing the DNA of over one million innocent people.

“Nothing casual about their failed attempts to increase the time a person can be detained without charge from what was then 14 days up to 90; something Labour’s new leader voted for.

“They turned Britain into a place where schools can fingerprint your children without their parents’ consent… Where, in one year, we saw over 100,000 terror-related stop-and-searches, none of which yielded a single terror arrest.

They made Britain a place where you could be put under virtual house arrest when there was not enough evidence to charge you with a crime. And with barely an explanation of the allegations against you. A place where young, innocent children caught up in the immigration system were placed behind bars. A Britain whose international reputation has been brought into question because of our alleged complicity in torture.”

In the last year of a Labour government, 1,000 children of asylum seekers were imprisoned. Yet, as a party there is no mea culpa. Many of the myriad special advisers and ministers who advocated ever more authoritarian powers are still in place. I still hear, “they aren’t talking about it in the Dog & Duck”, as a catch-all phrase that is fairly sinister.

People don’t focus on their human rights until they are taken away. The majority of Belarusians are currently getting on with their lives in Europe’s last dictatorship. It’s the 28 in solidarity confinement in a KGB prison in downtown Minsk for whom human rights are important.

There’s no doubt that Nick Clegg’s attempt to demonise Labour today was political posturing. He ignored Labour’s introduction of the Human Rights Act; that Labour were in office after the talismanic episode of 9/11; that civil liberties are dependent in a democracy on public support (which often wasn’t there). But rather than receiving Nick Clegg’s speech with jeers, Ed Miliband needs to reappraise the party Labour ought to be.

As I wrote before for Left Foot Forward, Labour is toxic to many of the people it ought to be a natural bedfellow of. Many Muslims in places like Oldham East and Saddleworth voted Liberal Democrat not just because of Iraq, but because they felt victimised. Many of the much-derided ‘Hampstead liberals’ are some of the five million votes Labour lost between 1997-2010.

Newspapers that ought to be on our side turned against us. It’s no coincidence that it was a liberal party, the Liberal Democrats, who opposed our authoritarian streak who made the largest electoral gains in 2005 and 2010. And it’s a surprise that we didn’t take this lesson on board. For Labour to win the election in 2015, we need to take a look in the mirror.

http://www.leftfootforward.org/