The Winners and Losers of Spin from the ‘Plebgate’ Saga
From when there has been mass media, there has been spin to skew the public opinion it creates. To spin a story means “to manipulate not only what administration officials are saying but also what the media are saying about them.”
For over two years, Andrew Mitchell and his bicycle had been making international headlines. On the 19th of September 2012, Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, formerly the British government’s Chief Whip, had a row with police officers at the gates of Number 10 who weren’t allowing him to cycle through the main vehicle exit. The next day, it was published in the Sun newspaper that Mitchell swore at the officers and called them “plebs” who should “learn their place”.
Journalists are the “bad guys”?
Following calls to resign and public humiliation to follow, Mitchell then on the 21st of September publicly denied using the word “plebs” but apologised for being disrespectful (Eleftheriou-Smith, 2014). He announced to spot-television reporters, “I have apologised to the police officer involved on the gate, and he has accepted my apology.” (BBC, 2014). This public denial and apology could be seen as a “bandaid-fix” over what British tabloids and news organisations had already seized with hyped politics, dubbing the developing story as “Plebgate”.
Already, the Spin Doctors for both Andrew Mitchell MP and the Conservative party were building their own opposing “faces”. On the 24th of September, Mitchell said he wanted to “draw a line” under the incident, telling journalists that he “did not use the words that ha[d] been attributed to [him].” If this was to work, Andrew Mitchell’s reputation and actions would become old news, and the incident would simply be putting the blame on the journalists.
Nevertheless, speculation of the exact wording continued, of which Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for him to explain “fully and in detail his version of events”. This in turn separated the Conservative party slightly away from Mitchell, as a fail-safe for spin purposes in the future; preserving the Conservative party’s reputation if Mitchell were to become a “bad apple”.
Mitchell is the “bad guy”?
Almost like a political death sentence, a police log of the incident was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, contradicting Mitchell’s statements and confirming previous narratives as he was quoted saying, “Best you learn your fucking place…you don’t run this fucking government…You’re fucking plebs.”.
The log continued to read, “I [PC Toby Rowland] warned Mr MITCHELL that he should not swear, and if he continued to do so I would have no option but to arrest him under the Public Order Act, saying “Please don’t swear at me Sir. If you continue to I will have no option but to arrest you under the public order act”. Mr MITCHELL was then silent and left saying, “you haven’t heard the last of this” as he cycled off”.
The second half of this police log placed the police constable – or rather, the British Police Force – as an innocent and dutiful player in the ‘Plebgate’ scandal; with Mitchell as the “villain” of the story, later to be described by the officer’s barrister as presenting a “warped image of the affair”.
Throughout the following month, Mitchell remained in post whilst public movements and PR campaigns protested his actions as well as used the ‘Plebgate’ scandal to fuel alternative issues. Members of the Police Federation wore “PC Pleb and Proud” t-shirts against police funding cuts by the Conservative party at demonstrations outside government offices. Included in the demonstrations, were officers outside Mitchell’s constituency office accusing the Prime Minister of “failing to investigate the Chief Whip’s outburst”. These demonstrations only added support to Mitchell’s “demonised” public image.
Conservatives are the “bad guys”?
On the 12th of October 2012, three local representatives of the Police Federation met with Mitchell at his Sutton Coldfield constituency office for a short meeting in a bid to end speculation around the topic and move on. They later told reporters afterwards that Mitchell still had not acknowledged the precise words he used in the incident.
To defend the Conservative party’s actions towards the scandal, Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament on the 17th of October that what Mitchell “did and said” was wrong, but having apologised and the officer involved having accepted his apology, Mitchell should be allowed to move on.
The opposition party leader Ed Miliband jumped at his chance for a one clean swoop. In Prime Minister’s Questions, Miliband said, “While it is a night in the cell for the yobs, it is a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip. Isn’t that the clearest case there could be of total double standards?…His position is untenable. He is toast.”.
According to the ICM opinion poll, conducted for the Guardian newspaper, Labour was winning 41% of the vote compared to the Conservative’s 31% last conducted on September 23rd 2012 (Figure 1).
In light of which, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone that on the 19th of October 2012, Andrew Mitchell MP resigned claiming the “damaging publicity” meant he could no longer carry out his duties. In his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Mitchell wrote, “The offending comment and the reason for my apology to the police was my parting remark ‘I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us.’”. If noted, this was not a remark that was printed inside the leaked police log. This will come into play later on.
Police are the “bad guys”?
As it stood in October 2012, the Conservative party and the British Police Force had won the moral high ground over the ‘Plebgate’ scandal. The Conservative party had begun clawing their way back up in votes following the binning of their “bad apple”, the Constable had been commended by Mitchell for accepting his apology, and ‘Plebgate’ became essentially silent for a couple of months.
However, in subsequent months, the media watchdog became very essential in revealing the truth behind the original ‘Plebgate’ incident. The idea of the watchdog places journalists inside the democratic political process – as active participants tasked with making sure the legislative, executive and judicial players do not abuse their power or become corrupt.
On the 18th of December, a dispatch-investigation by Channel 4 News broadcasted CCTV footage of the argument in Downing Street, which then raised questions as to the accuracy of the police log.
The log had identified the members of the public who were “visibly shocked” as they witnessed the incident, which did not appear in the CCTV footage. Likewise, it was also revealed a “constituent” claiming to have witnessed the row, PC Keith Wallis, was in truth a serving police officer who was absent of the incident entirely. From this evidence discovered by the watchdog, Scotland Yard began their own High Court investigation into ‘Plebgate’, resulting in heavy legal ramifications. PC Wallis was later sentenced to 12 months in prison. PCs James Glanville and Gillian Weatherly were also sacked from the British Police Force for gross misconduct, after being discovered as the source of the police log’s leak.
At this stage, it would seem that the press had carried out its duty, as John Delane would state, “to seek out the truth, above all things, and to present to his readers not much things as statecraft would wish them to know, but the truth as near as he can attain in.”
Bad guys finish first
On the 28th of March 2013, six months after the original incident, Mitchell sued both the Sun and Scotland Yard for deformation and providing the leaked – then falsified – information. Over the course of the trial, celebrities such as Sir Bob Geldof were used as a character witness for Mitchell, of which Geldof claimed he had never heard Mitchell use “the ridiculous and archaic expression ‘pleb’”. This would support Mitchell’s case from the Royals Courts of Justice, as well as go someway to rebuild his public reputation through “fame-game endorsers”.
However, on the 27th of November 2014, the saga came to a close as Mitchell lost his High Court libel battle over the incident, as the judge ruled that Mitchell “on the balance of probabilities, had called police officers “fucking plebs””, and bluntly that, “the Policer Officer lacked the wit, imagination and inclination to make up the damning phrases” (Peachy, 2014). Or as comedian Russell Howard put it, “I know you called him a pleb, because that policeman is a fucking idiot.”
All in all, the media watchdog reclaimed the spin from the British Police Force and Mitchell, putting truth where truth lied. Each player – whether it be the Conservatives, the British Police Force, journalists, voters, or Andrew Mitchell MP – had their own good and bad spin from the saga. However, the only real “winner” from the spin war that was ‘Plebgate’, would be deduced as the Labour party – on the sole reason that they had little to no involvement in the original incident, and could merely use the media’s hysteria as ammunition to propagate their own agenda.