PIE controversy: Harriet Harman has got this one wrong

Independent on Sunday, 2 March 2014

If you are a public figure with left-of-centre politics, it is a question that can’t be avoided: how to deal with the Daily Mail? The paper is hysterically opposed to most things I believe in but it has millions of readers, which is why some kind of “Mail strategy” is essential. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, took a calculated risk last year when he challenged the paper’s distasteful attack on his late father. His deputy, Harriet Harman, tried a similar approach last week, with very different – some would say disastrous – consequences.

Between 1978 and 1982, Harman was legal officer of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty). Her husband Jack Dromey, who is Labour’s shadow police minister, chaired the NCCL in the 1970s; Patricia Hewitt, who was later a cabinet minister, was its general secretary. The links between the NCCL and an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange have been known about for years, and are a stain on its reputation.

The problem for Harman, Dromey and Hewitt isn’t that they were advocates of sexual relationships between adults and children when they were at the NCCL. It isn’t even an NCCL press release in 1976 calling for the lowering of the age of consent to 14 – a terrible idea, but not one supported only by paedophiles at the time. It’s that the origin of the attack seems to have blinded them to the fact that they might actually have something to apologise for.

Hewitt broke her silence three days ago and admitted she “got it wrong” on PIE, but Harman’s tardiness in acknowledging the organisation’s poor judgement has kept the story on the front page. She was defensive on BBC2’s Newsnight programme, and didn’t express regret about the link until the following morning.

I have known Harman for years. I admire the way that she pushed through groundbreaking legislation to protect vulnerable women and children. I’m sure that part of the Mail’s motivation is her support, as shadow Culture Secretary, for the proposals for press regulation in the Leveson report.

But the cases of Miliband’s father and Harman’s role at the NCCL are very different. Miliband had nothing to apologise for, but there was a collective failure at the NCCL to kick out a very nasty bunch of people. Harman’s defence – that any legal organisation was allowed to affiliate to the NCCL – suggests a lack of proper governance. Yesterday a Court of Protection judge confirmed that he resigned in 1979 when he discovered that representatives of PIE were speaking at NCCL meetings at the London School of Economics.

Harman has many talents but she also has a patrician testiness which doesn’t respond well to being challenged. I can understand her revulsion at having to admit that the Mail has a point, but I’m also surprised the story hasn’t blown up before now. The brightest people make mistakes, even if it’s a matter of failing to notice something or act robustly enough.

That’s what Harman, who went to work at the NCCL after PIE affiliated to it, should have acknowledged. Instead, she has played into the hands of a newspaper which wants its readers to believe the appalling smear that the Labour Party is stuffed with covert supporters of child abuse.

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