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Beware the commentariat

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I am always suspicious when the commentariat has a collective spasm, as it has in the Damien Green affair. So I was pleased to hear Vernon Bogdanor on the Today programme arguing that things are just a little bit more complex than implied by the tide of righteous indignation filling our newspapers for the last few days. It is all too possible that this is a mixture of cock up and over-reaction and that someone senior will end up carrying the can. But in the RSA’s spirit of asking awkward questions, here are three points that are worth bearing in mind in the rush to judgement:

Police investigations are justified by their ends. We are all innocent citizens until proven otherwise. For anyone to be arrested, or to have their property searched, seems like an unwarranted invasion unless and until they are successfully prosecuted. In a case like this, where paper and electronic documents are crucial, the police will tend to undertake a comprehensive and intrusive search at the point of arrest to avoid anything they are looking for being subsequently destroyed.

Surely the distinction between publicising leaked materials passed over by a conscience stricken whistle blower and encouraging someone to break their contract of employment (and the law) by deliberately seeking out embarrassing information about their employer is pretty substantial. I am not saying anyone is guilty of the latter, but is it right to suggest – as many in the commentariat have – that there cannot possibly be a charge to answer?

As Professor Bogdanor pointed out this morning, the principle of Parliamentary privilege (which arguably doesn’t apply in this case anyway) needs to be balanced by the principle that all citizens are the same before the law. How would the media react if the focus of the allegations was a civil servant with republican sympathies who was leaking information on security matters on the instruction of a Sinn Fein MP?

If the case against the civil servant and Mr Green proves to be groundless (and judging by his loud denials, the Conservative MP clearly feels on strong ground) it may be deeply embarrassing for the police and those who knew about the investigation. But are the issues really as simple and clear cut as most of the commentariat suggests?

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