Huhne v Pryce: Justice resoundingly done
The truth is not only the best story. It tends to be a lot cheaper
It's not usual that the world gets a chance to see almost live the words of a judge handing down a sentence. Yet yesterday's sentencing of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce gave us that rare chance.
Here are the words of Sweeney J. And powerful words they are too. When a British judge is on top form, the result is peerless: clarity, precision, nuance and above all a strong sense that, yes, a good and fair decision has been reached.
Not to forget the dashes of acid wit:
On the one hand you are a man of positive previous good character (about whom others have spoken extremely well) and who has given valuable public service, you have fallen from a great height (albeit that that is only modest mitigation given that it is a height that you would never have achieved if you had not hidden your commission of such a serious offence in the first place), and you have had to wait some time to be sentenced.
The rationale for the sentences given? Again, well put:
To the extent that anything good has come out of this whole process, it is that now, finally, you have both been brought to justice for your joint offence. Any element of tragedy is entirely your own fault.
The underlying offence was speeding, the points swapping was considered and deliberate and done to gain joint advantage, the perversion of justice which resulted from it lasted for many years, and (as I have already observed) its eventual revelation and correction reflects no credit on either of you.
Offending of this sort strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system. As has been observed before, the purpose of the points system is that those who drive badly eventually have to be punished by way of disqualification, which serves to discourage bad driving and thereby to protect the public from it.
The system depends, in relation to those caught on camera, upon the honest completion of the relevant form or forms. The dishonest completion of such forms is all too easy to do, and the consequent points’ swapping often goes unnoticed and unchecked.
However, it must be clearly understood that it amounts to the serious criminal offence of doing acts tending and intended to pervert the course of justice and that, save in the most exceptional circumstances, an immediate custodial sentence must follow.
Indeed, in my view, this is the type of offence which requires the court to underline that deterrence is one of the purposes of sentence...
"Boo! Disgrace!", some hoot. "Why these horrid custodial sentences for a victimless crime!?"
The victims are all those who were put at risk by the fact that Huhne carried on driving when he should have been stopped. And the people who have had to pay taxes to get to the bottom of how this grotesque couple, lost in their seniority and vanity, lied and deceived assorted public servants over and over again. And those of us who behave honestly and take the hit as we should when the law, in its blundering majesty, crunches down on us.
This last one is the key point. People who enjoy every possible financial and professional privilege can be expected to set an example for behaving properly. As, for the sake of example, my wife and I do.
But that works – is credible as part of a general social contract – only if people who try to cheat the system and deliberately scheme to 'pervert the course of justice' get firmly punished in a way that hurts and deters.
Here the scheming and cheating and manifold repeated public lying took many forms over many years, and wasted far more public money than the public purse will ever get back in terms of direct costs recoverable from Huhne/Pryce themselves. So, justice has been resoundingly done.
For me the truly baffling feature of the whole case was not the blithe dishonesty of Huhne, a fellow whose preening self-satisfaction and ambition were already copiously on display when we were both students at Oxford back in the 1970s.
Rather it is that someone as supposedly sophisticated as Pryce allowed herself to succumb to the slippery friendship, and even more slippery blandishments, of Sunday Times journalist-cum-schemer Isabel Oakeshott.
The many emails between Pryce and Oakeshott tell the grisly story. For me the key one is Oakeshott's email of 19:30 on March 9th, 2011.
Answering Pryce's well-founded emailed concerns that the path she was on might get her too into deep trouble, Oakeshott slyly notes that the newspaper have consulted their lawyers and "there is some risk to you (it would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise)".
But whoosh, she then quickly moves to emphasise the bright side of the story crashing out – CH's career would be in tatters – and argues that the risk of damage to Pryce can be 'minimised' by 'handling it all very carefully': "My own view is that you would come out of it fine, if we chose the right words, but of course there would be a storm".
This email was a bright steady flame luring the gormless, gullible, fluttering Pryce to her doom. Oakeshott must be taken to have known from the Sunday Times lawyers that the risk to Pryce of being convicted for all her machinations was not modest but rather considerable. Hence insofar as she was asserting friendship, the only honourable advice to Pryce at this point was: "I'm sorry, but it's now clear that you too are now in very seriously deep legal waters. Get a lawyer to advise you properly. Fast. Then decide what if anything you want to do with this story."
Instead she played down these risks to Pryce in search of 'the story' (i.e. to boost her own name by selling a few more Murdoch newspapers with this trash), with the stunning results for Pryce and Huhne we saw today.
It is especially contemptible (NB in my own view, based on what I have read) that Oakeshott now deploys the supposedly deflecting argument that Pryce was getting proper legal advice through her Clapham friend and senior barrister and part-time judge, Constance Briscoe ("Vicky was getting advice from a judge - you can't get any better than that!"). Briscoe too has now crashed into professional ignominy through her own stupidity.
As Oakeshott knows perfectly well, there is all the difference in the world between (a) getting formal legal advice from a lawyer, 100 percent detached from the issues, who can take a hard, dispassionate look at all the facts and give clear advice; and (b) falling into the trap of cooking up mischievous evasions with a senior lawyer down the road who herself is obviously behaving with utter impropriety. To skulk behind this sort of argument is surely poor on a professional journalist level.
My old friend at the FT always used to say that journalism is simple: "the truth is the best story". Here Isabel Oakeshott herself played a key role in intricate manoeuvres by Pryce to manipulate the course of justice, with a view to willfully harming the career of a senior serving politician for private reasons unrelated to his job. Is she lucky to escape prosecution too?
All in all, a startling tale of unforced middle-class folly and media manipulation on a grand, tragic scale.
The last word with Sweeney J:
I make clear that your lies and your endeavour to manipulate the process of the court will not add a day to your sentence, although they are likely in due course be relevant to the issue of costs...
The truth is not only the best story. It tends to be a lot cheaper.
Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford
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