When one man is said to have called another a “pleb”, but no incontrovertible evidence exists that he has done so, how do you get to the truth?
At the Royal Courts of Justice for most of the last fortnight, politicians, police officers, lawyers and journalists have assembled in court 13 and attempted to provide an answer, starting from the surreal proposition, unique to the law, that there has to be one. Given that cast of characters and the absurdity of the question, one suspects that the general public would have hit on a pretty simple solution: toss in a couple of highly poisonous snakes and lock all the doors.
For whatever reason, this didn’t seem to occur to Mr Justice Mitting, whose courtroom it was. Instead, we had 26 witnesses, astonishing piles of documents and three legal teams. That was the sledgehammer. The nut was a short conversation that took place on 19 September 2012 between the government chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, and PC Toby Rowland, a police officer who was on duty at the gate to Downing Street that night. CCTV footage suggested it began at 19:36:45, and lasted no more than 11 seconds. Mr Mitchell is accused of uttering three “toxic phrases”, a total of 20 career- and life-defining syllables, one of which counted above all the rest. He sued the Sun, which published the claim. PC Rowland, with the financial backing of the Police Federation, sued him. The establishment of the legally accepted facts that would resolve these parallel cases, and with them bring some sort of closure to a dreadful parable of class and entitlement that has haunted the country for more than two years, has run up a total legal bill of about £3m. Whatever else, the snakes would have been cheaper.
But no dice. Instead, two men in salmon pink ties move through the packed courtroom. Mitchell’s supporters lined up behind his lawyers, and Rowland’s behind his. One side is all heavy-set coppers bursting out of their dark suits; the other home counties sorts in scarves and tweed, and David Davis. (Waiting to file in one afternoon, I play a game with myself, trying to guess which side each spectator will sit on, and achieve 100% accuracy.)
Ties aside, the two protagonists could hardly be more different. The first day I attend, they both take the stand. In theory, this is more Rowland’s home turf than Mitchell’s; during the course of his career he must have been in court many times, whereas Mitchell used to be an investment banker. In fact, though, it’s the policeman who appears ill at ease. He spends most of the trial staring at his lap, and in breaks between sessions confines his conversation to the small circle of allies with whom he presumably feels secure.
I try to talk to him a couple of times, but on both occasions he just says “sorry” with a well-rehearsed shrug. He looks grateful when I say “fair enough” the second time, and I think: God, why would you be grateful to a vulture like me? No one could doubt that he’s been through the wringer, largely thanks to the attentions of the press. “Youngest tearful n attached to me,” he wrote, in a text sent on Christmas Eve 2012 as he tried to contend with the doorstepping. “Eldest had nightmare that man broke into her room and took her photo. Reb [his wife] trying really hard, but suffering. I’ve lost a stone so far … trying to eat but feel sick.” I talk to someone who has spoken to him a number of times during the trial. “He is what you’d think he is,” I’m told. “He calls everyone sir. He doesn’t want media attention at all. He just says: ‘I can’t wait for this to be over.’”
Not surprising, then, if he comes across as wounded and defensive under cross-examination. Mitchell’s lawyer, James Price QC, holds his feet to the flames; there’s no jury, but if there was, you suspect they would find his interrogation thoroughly alienating. Whereas Rowland is stout and damp, with an obstinate set to his jaw, Price – Eton, Oxford – is vulpine, ruthless, and even posher than Mitchell. He dissects Rowland’s testimony with the abstracted interest of a child operating on a fly with a pair of tweezers. Indeed, while his case is that his client never said “pleb”, his tone seems to imply it would have been jolly well merited if he had.
“You must have known,” Price says – laconic, nasal, one leg casually hitched up on the bench, endlessly jingling coins in his pocket – “that to give a senior public figure an arrest warning could lead to a complaint direct to the commissioner’s office.” Do you not see how important Mr Mitchell is? Do you not see the trouble you’ve caused him? I’m waiting, boy. In the overflow gallery upstairs, one heavy-set Mitchell partisan – who, he later confesses, has no connection to the case beyond a general fascination with libel proceedings – cackles with glee. “He’s fatter than I am!” he hoots. “He’s on the rack! Well done, Andrew!”
Indeed, Mitchell appears to be in his element. He’s composed and sympathetic in the witness box, and a dominant figure outside of it. Where Rowland keeps to his corner, Mitchell works the room like it’s a fundraiser, reserving much of his time for the journalists sat in the jury box near his own perch. During one of the shorthand breaks, I’m tapping out an email on my phone when I hear a voice say: “Where are you from?” He’s polite, genial, complimentary about the Guardian’s coverage, charming in a brittle sort of way, and it’s probably unfair that I feel a bit as if he’s asked which school I went to.
And yet there’s something fragile about that bravado. Whatever you ask him, his answer reverts to an explanation of his confidence in the outcome, based on his reading of the judge’s body language. At one point I’m on my way out of the loo when he starts to chat from the urinal, and so I shift from one foot to the other, not absolutely sure of where to look, as he explains his analysis of the last round of evidence. I suppose it’s illogical to feel for him and Rowland alike, but I can’t help it: if the policeman’s stolid timidity makes you want to give him a hug, the politician’s confidence is so lavishly performed that it seems to betray something else altogether: a submerged terror of the consequences if it all falls apart, and a desperate hope that by saying all is well he can make it so.
It’s said that Mitchell has few friends. If this is so, the lineup of grandees he manages to assemble to speak for his character is all the more impressive. There are politicians and peers, columnists and generals, even a rock star, or whatever Bob Geldof is, exactly. There are normal people too, but it’s Geldof’s testimony that sticks with me. “I am in fact a pleb,” he said. “Never once in all our time did he patronise me.” The thing is, Bob, you aren’t a pleb. You haven’t been for years. And the idea that a man who can deal with you necessarily has the common touch seems unlikely to wash outside of the pop-political community.
In the end, it was plain that none of that counted for very much with Mitting. You couldn’t help but be lost in admiration for his forensic command of the detail: you’d need a memory palace to keep it all straight. And yet it almost all seemed irrelevant. A judgment that took over an hour to read boiled down to the fact that two phonetic experts judged that Mitchell would have had time to say the “toxic phrases”, and that he had told his deputy that he didn’t know what he had said very soon after.
As for Rowland, well, he couldn’t have made it up, Mitting explained, indifferent to the sweeping nature of his verdict on the character of the claimant: he lacked “the wit, the imagination, or the inclination” to do so. I wondered how it felt for Rowland, his vindication over one insult from a public schoolboy sealed with an insult from another one. Victory for the plebs? It was hard not to think, as the Oxford-educated judge used his fountain pen to take notes on the submissions of two opposing QCs who were contemporaries at Eton, and who all, like Mitchell, wore cufflinks, that if this was a class war, it was by very distant proxy. I only saw one chink in Rowland’s impassive armour: his customary nod to the judge, as Mitting left, accompanied by a movement of the lips that looked very like “thank you”.
As Mitting read his verdict, Andrew Mitchell sat with his wife and daughters, as well as David Davis, who is said to have urged him to press on with the case, but who has at least remained scrupulously loyal. Throughout the trial, Mitchell had sat forward, energetically nudging his junior lawyers with queries and suggestions, fixing his eyes on the judge with a strange half-smile that never seemed to leave his lips. Now, with every other person in the gallery leaning in, the Mitchells pressed themselves conspicuously back against the benches, like the last characters standing in a game of Guess Who?, the visible anxiety on their faces turning to a different sort of tension as their defeat became clear. Mitchell himself was hunched smaller than he had been on previous days, leaning against his wife a little for support. If Rowland has been insulted, he has been ravaged, and he will have to live for ever with the knowledge that he could have avoided it all.
The press pack went outside to get a prime spot for Mitchell’s statement. After the crowd had gone, one of Mitchell’s daughters – the other had left – reached over and squeezed his arm. Then the family gathered themselves and made their way down to the entrance on the Strand, pausing to let the stragglers out before them, knowing the grand exit that was expected, and prepared to do their bit. There’s a man who always stands outside the court with a banner advocating a utopian Christian constitution. He also has a dog with a banner of his own, which says “no nukes”. Earlier in the trial Mitchell had petted it on his way home, but now, as the flash bulbs went off, the terrier – which has a muzzle as well as a banner – started to bark furiously. Master and pet inserted themselves directly behind the family as they crossed the road and made their way down the street in a phalanx of photographers, and so that’s how Andrew Mitchell made his exit from the most notorious day of his life: ducking into a doorway, buffeted by strangers, with an angry dog headbutting his calves.
Was it worth it? I don’t mean for Mitchell and Rowland and the Sun, for whom the answers are pretty obvious, but for the rest of us. Did we come to a better understanding of an event that had taken on such disproportionate importance? Not really. The strange but intuitively obvious conclusion I drew from hearing Mitchell and Rowland is that they both absolutely believe themselves to be telling the truth. The only way to proceed is to accept that, in such circumstances, it is as relevant and possible to assess the facts of the matter as it is to judge the smell of the moon.
Unfortunately, that kind of approach doesn’t work here. Instead, whereas before we all believed that this silly thing definitely didn’t happen, now we all believe that it definitely did – even though the best a court can do is a balance of probabilities. You can count syllables, and watch CCTV and listen to witnesses. But in the end, you just pick a side. “This happens in trials,” Mitting said at one point. “Differences narrow. Things become clearer.” And so they do. They are forced to, so that we can all stop thinking about it, and get on with our lives.
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