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Sunday, 4 November 2012

More Taking Sides

I am continuing to read Bernard Levin's Taking Sides, and enjoying the window that it provides on Britain's recent past.  In 1973 Levin loses his cool with the Gas Board for making a hash of converting his elderly widowed mother's flat to gas.  He finds the details of the supervisor responsible and publishes them in the Times, exhorting the public to express their frustration for any similar experience directly.  I doubt he'd be allowed to get away with it now and I am rather surprised he got away with it then.  He finishes his first column on the subject with the following thunderbolt:

I want a public answer to this question: what is wrong with a national organization which gives its customers not the service they pay for but, instead, incompetence and a string of broken promises. 

It seems his column worked, for he follows it up with another dated two weeks later in which the problem has been solved and a letter of apology received by his mother.  But he despairs for anyone else:

Unless the Gas Board, feeling that it has done its final duty by the tribe of Levin, has now given up The Times, perhaps any senior official reading this might care to indicate to his colleagues that something in the nature of a return to square one is urgently needed. 

There are any number of problems with privatised utilities: price gouging if a monopoly; executives trying to ensure their bonuses keep pace with the rest of the City irrespective of their actual performance; different companies involved in the supply chain each seeking a profit and inflating the price for the end user accordingly; important national resources being placed beyond national control; and so on.  At the same time, reading Levin's book tends to confirm the suspicion that a return to 1970s Soviet-style state monopolies with Soviet levels of incompetence and inefficiency might not be the answer.

In the next article Levin returns to the law and his favourite pastime of attacking lawyers, in this case judges.  He records that one Mr Banks, "who is herewith invited to blow the froth off a pint of mine any time he finds it convenient to call" was arrested and charged with contempt for having given the fingers to a judge passing in official regalia on the way to Teesside Crown Court.  Apparently Mr Bangs made a mistake and had intended to do the fingers to the Mayor instead, as an expression of frustration over a recent rates increase.  For this misidentification he found himself in the dock.  Levin mercilessly taunts the judges for their Gilbert and Sullivan appearance and haughty pomposity.

I have to say I agree with Levin that prosecuting Mr Bangs did something to damage and nothing to uphold the majesty and dignity of the law.  Levin provides a contrasting example of an aggrieved litigant in person who threw books at the bench as they were retiring.  None of the judges batted an eyelid, leaving the litigant rather than them looking silly and feeling harassed.

As with most who have observed court over the years I could add many similar examples.  My favourite(it may be apocryphal) concerns the failed appellant in the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, who screamed at the Lord Chief Justice "You f++ing bastard", before receiving the casual response: "Well I suppose the bastard point's debatable, but I'm certainly not f++ing anything at the moment ..."

Without drawing too long a bow, I might add that such sanguinity is something to bear in mind in the present day, where the law is busily tying itself in knots trying to apply s 127 of the Communications Act 2003 to the billion or so Facebook updates and Tweets daily.  It might be harsh telling someone to develop a thicker skin, but it is more harsh to jail someone for some random piece of nonsense published on social media.

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