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Rethinking Harvey Proctor

Thursday 29 April 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • In the first US presidential speech with a woman vice president and speaker, Joe Biden said America had “to prove democracy works” (more below).
  • Arlene Foster said she would stand down as leader of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, taking the blame for what her party considers a Brexit betrayal by Boris Johnson.
  • FBI agents raided the home of Rudy Giuliani, the ex-Trump lawyer being investigated over his dealings with Ukraine.

Rethinking Harvey Proctor

All this week, our Tortoise story has been Pariah. It’s an explanation of what Harvey Proctor – a Conservative MP in the 1980s, notorious for his far-right views – endured through two major public scandals in 1987 and 2015. More than that, it’s an exploration of the complex interplay between public sentiment, media ethics and standards of policing. 

The key to understanding the meaning of a story like this is recognising patterns. The patterns which recur between Harvey Proctor’s entrapment in a sex scandal by a newspaper in the 1980s and his treatment by the failed Metropolitan Police investigation, Operation Midland, in 2015 are striking and troubling. They’re the reason the story repays a fresh look, and why we’ve been so fascinated by it at Tortoise. 

Two great scandals intruded into Harvey Proctor’s life:

  • As an MP in the 1980s, Proctor cast himself as an anti-immigration firebrand and heir to Enoch Powell. His career in public life came to a shuddering end in 1987 when he was entrapped by the Sunday People in a sex scandal with a 19-year-old man. At the time the age of consent for gay sex was 21. Proctor was convicted of gross indecency.
  • Nearly 30 largely reclusive years followed, before he was dragged from obscurity to be ensnared in one of the highest-profile police investigations of the past decade, Operation Midland. It was launched in 2014 on the testimony of one man who claimed that a ‘VIP paedophile ring’ consisting of a former prime minister, former heads of MI5 and MI6, and other establishment figures, had tortured, abused and murdered boys, and covered up every trace of its activities. Harvey Proctor was singled out as the worst of the offenders.

And the reasons why Harvey Proctor’s story deserves our attention now:

  1. Institutional homophobia. The best reading of what lay behind the media onslaught on Harvey Proctor in the 1980s was that it was opportunistically rather than primarily homophobic. (There were other gay MPs who could equally have been targeted if it had been motivated only by homophobia.) But the newspapers were prepared to license prejudice for what they saw as a greater purpose, to bring down a right-wing MP they found objectionable. Similarly, in 2015 media organisations were prepared to ignore the possibility that homophobia (and antisemitism) were some of the driving forces behind Operation Midland in pursuit of what they saw as a bigger goal. Opportunistic homophobia lives on in the media.
  2. The dangers of partisan journalism. In 2014/15 the assault against Harvey Proctor and his co-accused in Operation Midland was led by a news start-up called Exaro. It was a creature of its time, online-only and independent of the ‘mainstream media’ it disparaged. But it was a descendant of the unruly campaigning journalists of the 1980s. New media now can be even more dangerous than its predecessors. Outlets are freed from the controls and standards imposed – albeit very imperfectly – by big publishers; entirely lopsided in their approach, with no inclination to consider an opposing perspective; dismissive of ‘old-fashioned’ approaches to fact-checking and evidence-gathering.
  3. Submissive policing. There is a clear read-across from the two great scandals which wrecked Harvey Proctor’s life; in both cases the police wobbled and caved in to pressure from the press. They proved incapable of exercising judgement or steadfastness in the face of media criticism. In the aftermath of Operation Midland, those who were wrongly accused have been compensated but there has been no genuine accountability. 
  4. The runaway train of public sentiment. In the 1980s, newspapers were powerful enough to whip up a public mood and direct it against a target. Social media makes public sentiment more difficult to harness but much more skittish and potentially more dangerous when it bears down on individuals or institutions. The big tech platforms need to address their roles in amplifying this problem.

As a society, we sometimes console ourselves that the arc of our history bends towards justice. But a 30-year lens on Harvey Proctor’s story tells us something different: history can be a straight line from old injustices to new. 

Listen to Pariah here.


New things technology, science, engineering

Apple doesn’t fall
No real surprise that Apple’s first quarter results beat expectations and the company is now forecasting a full-year profit of $70 billion (roughly equivalent to the GDP of Ghana) on revenues that could approach that of Finland. Their latest iPhone is selling like there weren’t already plenty to choose from, and we’re just computers with bags of organic matter attached now, after all. But I was struck by the WSJ’s coverage ($) of the results, which broke out figures (healthy, of course) for “Greater China”. Ugh. This has been Apple’s umbrella term for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan for several years, but still. Taiwan is an independent democratic country and at some point western corporates may have to check their consciences.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Vaccinate India
It is possible that India’s daily new Covid infection numbers have peaked – at around 360,000 – but by no means certain. The current spike could get even worse, because so few Indians have been vaccinated compared with richer countries. Ten per cent of adults have had a first dose. Only 1.6 per cent are fully vaccinated. The Atlantic suggests the Biden administration’s failure to airlift vaccine ingredients (not to mention emergency medical supplies) to India sooner was a serious mistake, not to mention a self-defeating one given no one’s safe till we all are. It will be interesting to get Gayle Smith’s take on his when she has time to draw breath in her new role in charge of US vaccine diplomacy.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

A greener FTSE
UK-based businesses are cleaning up, up to a point. The latest update of Tortoise’s Responsibility100 index in partnership with Teneo, released today, finds that FTSE 100 companies’ carbon emissions (excluding those from the things they sell, such as oil) fell by 61.5 million tonnes in the last reporting year. That works out at an average drop of 14 per cent per company year-on-year. It’s also equivalent to about 15 per cent of the UK’s total annual emissions – although the companies’ activities, like CO2 itself, don’t respect national borders. Next for the chop are scope 3 emissions. They’re the big ones: scope 3 covers companies’ global impact, not just their own operations. To cut those by the same amount many organisations will have to switch to being and doing something very different.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Mind the gap
Staying with the Responsibility100 index, it’s left no stone unturned and under one of them our team found an ominous and unnecessary piece of neglect. Nine companies stopped reporting their gender pay gap during the pandemic after the government paused legal requirements to share the data. The full list is Bunzl, JD Sports, Next, Just Eat Takeaway.com, Glencore, IAG, Renishaw, Mondi and Schroders. Why did they not report their numbers? Were all the key people on furlough, or do they have something to hide?


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Biden’s America is different
Or will be if he has his way. His first speech to Congress last night was a quietly revolutionary appeal to join him in a project to fill in huge holes in the American social safety net, at huge cost, to be born by the rich. There is still a big and powerful constituency that argues this is fundamentally un-American. Team Biden’s calculation is that once you show the middle class a bigger government can make lives better, they’ll go on voting for one. He wants to spend $6 trillion in all ($) – a third (already approved) on Covid recovery, a third on infrastructure and a third on the American Families Plan he outlined last night, with sweeping new entitlements to free childcare and community college. He wants to raise the top level of tax from 37 to 39.6 per cent and capital gains tax for top earners from 20 to 39.6 per cent – a big hike. The idea is that no one who earns less than $400,000 will pay more tax. In Europe that might seem eminently fair. In the US it’s going to be like setting fire to tinder.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ceri Thomas
@CeriThomas01

Photographs by Steve Morgan for Tortoise Media, Getty Images


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