Bobbies and Bohemia

Evening Standard, 13 December, 2005.

I HAD heard calls for a tough stance on law and order from all kinds of people in my time, but never before from a thoroughly bohemian and impeccably liberal theatre producer.

Yet there she was standing in front of me at a Christmas party and insisting that unless there was a clampdown the West End was in trouble.

I had believed the theatre’s problem was that expensive stars, strong unions and old buildings with exorbitant maintenance bills had pushed ticket prices too high. My new friend bemoaned them all, but she was far more concerned with the psychology of a good night out than the steep cost.

People were prepared to pay, she said, as long as they thought the evening would be a special occasion. What happened when they walked the streets of the supposedly glamorous West End, however, was anything but a treat.

More often than not, they confronted by drunks spewing out of pubs or simply spewing – a brawling, bawling atmosphere of barely suppressed violence that followed them down into the tube station as they nervously tried to get home. They didn’t like it and were staying away.

As a journalist of the old school, I would be a hypocrite if I were to condemn the Government’s relaxation of the licensing laws. Even if I were one of the snub-nosed prigs who now infest my trade, I would find it hard to argue that people shouldn’t be free to have a late-night drink after, say, seeing a show.

But the producer was not complaining about the licensing laws but the criminal law, which the police are not enforcing in theatre-land or on most high streets.

When civil servants in the Cabinet Office investigated alcohol abuse in 2003, they backed her up by unearthing one of those figures that can pull you up short. Convictions and cautions for drunkenness had fallen from 124,380 in 1980 to 43,356 in 2001 – a drop of almost two-thirds. This was not because teetotalism had swept the land or that the British were drinking less. Teetotalism is less popular than Methodist Sunday schools, and we are hitting the booze harder than ever

What had happened, Whitehall said, was stopping drunken disorder had become ‘a falling priority’ for the police because of ‘the sheer practicalities of policing large numbers of drunken people.’

In other words, officers did not want to deal with thousands of men and women who could well turn violent or throw-up over them.

I can’t say I blame them, but the effect of their squeamishness is that disorder is almost a risk-free crime. Not only theatres are suffering. All the councils that have tried to rejuvenate town centres by allowing pubs and clubs to take over the space left by the shops the supermarkets closed down, will be hit by the law of diminishing returns. In the end, their only paying visitors will be the brave and the reckless.

I TURNED on the Today programme yesterday morning and thought I’d got a feeble comedy show instead of the news.

A sub-Michael Moore clown was doing a turn the gist of which was that George W. Bush was the stooge of the Haliburton Corporation. John Humphrys was the next act. He shouted at Lord Falconer for so long and with such assurance in the righteousness of his beliefs, the Lord Chancellor was barely able to get three words out in reply.

I may be surprised, but I don’t expect tomorrow’s programme will feature a comedian mocking Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Nor do I expect to hear its presenters tearing into Charles Kennedy about the Liberal Democrats shameful failure to support the beleaguered liberals and democrats of Iraq.

If they do, it will be a first. I haven’t heard one opponent of the war given a hard time on Today in three years. Not even George Galloway.

The BBC’s managers must recognise that if they recruit arts graduates and put them in West London, they will inevitably have to deal with a middle-class liberal bias.

The best BBC reporters think their way out of it and are among the most admirable people in journalism as a result. But on programmes such as Today the prejudices are now so open they are tainting the whole corporation.

The solution is to appoint broad-minded editors who can point out to their staff – forcefully if need be – that a political philosophy is not necessarily moral or coherent or true just because everyone you eat with and sleep with shares it.

OLD FEARS of the femme fatale die hard. Bradley Murdoch very nearly got away with the murder because Joanna Lees did not fit the stereotype of the grieving girlfriend.

She wore a figure-hugging pink top when she appealed to the media for help in finding the killer of Peter Falconio. Would a real victim be as brazen?

She had an affair behind his back. Suspicious or what?

When Martin Bashir interviewed her, she remained shockingly cold and unemotional when it is virtually the law of land that everyone must blub for Bashir.

The gains of feminism are still not secure. If women do not play their expected roles, the police and the press can treat them as criminals.