Police Scotland and the politicising of human tragedy

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Commentary by G.A.Ponsonby

A major news story hit the headlines last July 8, when a couple were found in a car which had come off the M9. The driver, John Yuill, was dead but his passenger Lamara Bell was still alive. She lost her life in hospital days later.

The story took on a tragic and shocking twist when it emerged a call had been made to the police three days before officers discovered the car. The 101 call by a passer-by who reported that a car had left the road was  fielded by an officer who – for reasons not yet known – had omitted to record it in the police system. This  meant the two victims – on of them alive – had lain undiscovered for three full days.

UnknownThis shocking tragedy demonstrated the unforeseen consequences of human error and happenstance. How many times would a failure to log a 101 call reporting a car in a field result in anything other than an inconsequential delay before the vehicle was towed to the nearest yard?

We all make mistakes. Fortunately for most of us, those mistakes are very unlikely to result in the death of others.

The M9 tragedy occurred at a time when Police Scotland was already under scrutiny over several unrelated issues. One of the most serious was the case of Sheku Bayoh, who died after being arrested during an incident in Kirkcaldy on May 3.

Police Scotland has also faced criticism over the carrying of weapons by some officers and the practice of stop and search of youngsters. More recently there have been claims that Police Scotland may have accessed the mobile phone records of an investigative journalist.

Not all is bad as far as Police Scotland is concerned. For example, it should be noted that recorded crime is at its lowest in decades and that campaign groups have praised the force’s enlightened approach to violence against women.

Sir Stephen House: Leaving early
Sir Stephen House: Leaving early

Despite those successes in dealing with crime, critics have for some time been pursuing Police Scotland’s Chief, Sir Stephen House, over what they claim are the systematic failings of the recently-created single police force. Last Thursday that pressure appeared to have paid off when House announced his intention to stand down early from his post.

Game, set and match to his opponents, and an end to the politicking?  Well no, not at all.

The day House announced his intention to leave early, BBC Scotland ran the story alongside allegations from a person it described as a whistleblower who was concerned at failings in the force’s response to 999 calls.  The whistleblower allegations ran in tandem with reminders of the M9 tragedy.

At the time I wondered why BBC Scotland had decided to concentrate on the M9 story. Of all the issues that had plagued Police Scotland, this was the one that appears to be less about systemic failure and more about about human error.

The introduction of the whistleblower was odd, given that the M9 tragedy hadn’t been a failure to answer a 999 call at all. It was actually a 101 call, which is deemed normally to be far less serious.  Thus the melodramatic inclusion of a whitleblower, filmed in silhouette for effect, suggests a degree of manipulation.

What BBC Scotland appeared to be doing was conflating very real concerns over Police Scotland with a tragedy guaranteed to elicit strong emotional feelings amongst the viewing and listening public. The BBC whistleblower story was repeated by other media including the Daily Record.record_999Three weeks ago, I predicted the Labour Party in Scotland would seek to use Police Scotland to attack the Scottish Government, and that this was most likely to happen as the Scottish Parliament recess ended in August. I wrote:

“Unionists see an opportunity to attack the Scottish Government and indirectly Nicola Sturgeon.  In Police Scotland we have the perfect vehicle for just such an attack.  The motion lodged by Labour and the demand for an inquiry by the Lib Dems is nothing more than an attempt to keep the organisation in the public eye and to try to link the Scottish Government to each bad news story.

I suspect what we are witnessing is the creation of what will be presented to the public as Nicola Sturgeon’s first crisis.  The First Minister has had a phenomenal first few months as leader of her party and head of the Scottish Government.  She survived the memogate smear which was intended to derail the SNP’s general election campaign.  A bid by Buckingham Palace to undermine her also failed.  Unionists have struggled to find a weakness in Alex Salmond’s successor.

The Holyrood recess ends on August 30th.  The next First Minister’s Questions is scheduled for September 3rd.  Do not be surprised to see Police Scotland wielded by Scottish Labour and its Unionist allies as they try to dent Sturgeon’s popularity.”

On Sunday August 30, the day before Holyrood reconvened, BBC Scotland ran the M9/whistleblower story again. The story was the lead item on the Sunday afternoon Reporting Scotland:

The reason for repeating the story was apparently comments from M9 victim Lamara Bell’s brother who was responding to the allegations from the “whistleblower” that 999 calls aren’t being addressed. As I have already explained, and the BBC and other media know full well, the M9 tragedy wasn’t caused by a failure to address a 999 call.

We can’t know whether the gentleman whose sister went through an appalling experience before losing her fight for life gave his comment after being prompted to do so by the BBC, or whether he volunteered his response independent of the BBC.

What we do know is that BBC Scotland has managed to headline unconfirmed allegations from an unnamed individual over an emergency call system that has nothing to do with the M9 tragedy.

The Reporting Scotland item quickly moved on and viewers were presented with a Scottish Labour MSP mounting an attack on proposals to close two call centres. The M9 tragedy has finally been politicised.

If I am correct, then this week you will see the Scottish Government come under attack from Scottish Labour using Police Scotland as the weapon. The target will be Justice Secretary Michael Matheson.

I don’t know how Police Scotland’s response times compare with years gone by when it wasn’t a single police force. I’m sure the figures will be revealed if and when the issue comes up in the Holyrood chamber.

Even if they have improved I don’t think it would prevent Scottish Labour from attacking the Scottish Government.  Scottish Labour’s new leader Kezia Dugdale has already admitted that she will pursue the Scottish Government over three main issues – the NHS, education and Police Scotland.

BBC Scotland has very helpfully set up her first attack.