Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper included an editorial entitled Plebgate: stop digging .  This editorial contains two recommendations, both directed at the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW):

  • that the Federation should drop its challenge aimed at preventing the IPCC from reopening the investigation into the meeting between Andrew Mitchell and his local PFEW representatives;
  • and that it should stop funding PC Toby Rowland’s libel action against Mr Mitchell.

On twitter I said that, in terms of political awareness, I considered this to be good advice, adding the caveat that “if I were a member of @PFEW_HQ, I would disagree”.

I said this from a non-policing perspective but with some appreciation of the pain that the chain of plebgate-related incidents has caused to the vast majority of police officers.  It seems to me that the public have had their fill of plebgate, that the position espoused by aggrieved politicians is in the ascendency and that the press laps up every opportunity to criticise this most high-profile of public services.  The front page of this morning’s The Times would appear to support the third point.

The decision to take the IPCC to judicial review in respect of the Midlands-based Federation representatives seems to me to be fraught with reputational danger.  Moreover, I was unconvinced whether the funding of PC Rowland’s actions, which is neither an investigation nor a disciplinary matter, was in the interests of the membership at large..

As I had anticipated, my comment was immediately met with a barrage of disagreement from prospective, serving and retired police officers. Every comment related not to the decision to go to judicial review but to the funding of PC Rowland’s defence and all but one comment was in favour of the decision to fund.  Here are some examples:

@j0annepsi stated: “The Fed must not back down on this. PC Rowland is entitled to legal funding for workplace incidents. He has been slandered by Mitchell for over a year now – I can understand why he needs to set the record straight.”

@BriW74 added “I believe PC Rowland has the right to defend his reputation not only from AM but his [AM’s] friends.”

And @Njg28 (an ex-Inspector and ex-Federation representative) explained “If Feds back down from supporting & funding PC Rowland there will be a huge backlash by members. Can’t have disgraceful AM press conf go unchallenged.”

 The sole dissenting view came from an officer who didn’t disagree with these principles but was extremely concerned about the possibilities of further public relations catastrophes and for that reason felt that PFEW should desist.

The press conference to which Mr Gunn is referring is that of 26 November 2013 in which Mr Mitchell said: “Police Constable Toby Rowland, who was responsible for writing these toxic phrases into his notebook, was not telling the truth.” (6:29) A written resumé of this press conference can be found here.

I was then contacted directly by a serving officer who told me:

“The editorial omits to recall that Mitchell called Rowland a liar on national television, no doubt conflating Rowland as an individual with the acknowledged stuff-ups of other officers and the sheer awfulness of the whole affair. There seems to be no proof whatsoever that Rowland acted dishonourably, yet his character has been publicly impugned. 

 Why should he drop his action and why should the Federation not fund it? Mitchell could just issue a public apology and that would probably be that, but he seems to have lumped everyone together and lost the plot.

 The Guardian editorial, taking a lot of time to specify certain details, misses this important fact in order to make the whole thing look like a stitch-up that is all police wrongdoing.  Mitchell doesn’t emerge from any of this smelling of roses: it seems to me he should be held accountable for his shortcomings in this whole affair, which he has now whipped up into a condition of victimhood.”

 My initial support of the Guardian editorial was from the stance of political and media awareness and a concern about the PR aspect of both the judicial review and the libel action. However, I am also a staunch supporter of trade unions and of the rights of employees.  The very recent Independent Review of the Police Federation, chaired by Sir David Normington, highlighted that that police officers “need a highly effective representative organisation to be their safeguard” and that the Federation should aim to be an organisation that “genuinely serves … its members’ interests”.

So the question is whether the funding of PC Rowland’s libel action by the Federation “genuinely serves… its members’ interests” and it seems that police officers believe that it does. Despite the waning public interest, despite the scorn of politicians and despite the scepticism of the press, it seems that, in funding PC Rowland’s defence, the Police Federation is doing what is right.  Not for the press.  And not for the politicians.  But for the constables, sergeants, inspectors and chief inspectors who comprise its membership and who rely on the Federation to safeguard their interests.

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