Who runs Britain? 

8 December 2008 tbs.pm/991

BBC News: Baby P official fired without pay

So it’s happened again.

A scandal, a press hullabaloo, the demanding of heads, the swish of the metaphorical axe and said heads duly served up, freshly dripping blood, to a vengeful public on a silver platter.

Two months ago it was the BBC, messers Ross and Brand, Andrew Sachs, the Mail on Sunday and the Controller of Radio 2, among others. Now it is Haringey Council, those acting in loco parentis for Baby P, Baby P himself, the Sun and Sharon Shoesmith.

Both incidents have several things in common. The offended parties had just cause for grievance and the corporate body in the eye of the storm copped a lot of flack, perhaps some of which was warranted. National newspapers whipped up the public mood with unprincipled displays of outrage.

The reaction of those individuals at the centre of events differed. Brand and Leslie Douglas, among others at the BBC, resigned. Ross and Shoesmith tried to cling on. Both were suspended; Ms Shoesmith was sacked.

For these superficial similarities, the events differ in the substantive details and, crucially, import. Ms Shoesmith presided over a department whose incompetence resulted in the death of a child. Ms Douglas presided over a department that publicly offended an elderly and respectable gentleman and left thousands of licence-fee payers appalled.

But in both cases, the tabloid press decided that heads should roll. In both cases, they got their wish.

We must be careful not to confuse causation and correlation. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Perhaps, perhaps not. At least in the case of Baby P, almost certainly not. The moment Ofsted published its interim report, Ms Shoesmith’s career at Haringey was as good as over.

But the ability to change the course of events by a well-mounted and sustained drip, drip, drip of incessant inflammatory and condemnatory has been credited to the press over many years. Whether they actually have this ability to claim scalps is debatable – perhaps David Blunkett might have remained at the Home Office had New Labour not been so obsessed with the newspaper headlines each day, and Peter Mandelson might have remained in Hillsborough Castle long enough for Sir Anthony Hammond to exonerate him had the government felt able to tell Fleet Street to get stuffed.

Ted Heath went to the polls in 1974 demanding: who governs Britain? The answer, when it came, could not have been louder, or clearer. Not you, mate. But it was the electorate delivering its verdict. Now, I am not sure if the ability of our elected representatives to govern extends beyond sometimes narrow parameters of a remit laid down by unelected and unaccountable media moguls.

Ironically, I thought that both the Mail on Sunday and the Sun were expressing a justifiable sense of grievance, against the BBC over the Ross/Brand affair and against Haringey over the far more serious scandal with the death of a 17-month-old toddler at its centre.

Bob Marshall Andrews, on Any Questions? last week, remarked that the newspaper editors were pontificating about people who daily have to visit houses in streets down which said editors would refuse to let their chauffeurs drive, far less deign to get out of their cars. He has a point.