Dave Penman: ministers need a strategy to protect public servants from hostile media attacks

The departure of the director of public prosecutions is just one example where public servants have faced scrutiny from a hostile media. It is time ministers had the courage to challenge unwarranted media attacks

Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, is not unusual in her decision to step down after five years. Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

05 Apr 2018

A puppy may be for life rather than Christmas but directors of public prosecutions (DPPs) certainly aren't, as almost all have served only one term of five years. Dame Barbara Mills was the longest serving but she still didn’t serve a full two terms. It shouldn't really be a surprise then that Alison Saunders has decided to move on to one of the country's top legal firms after her five-year term was up – quite the catch for them I imagine.

She was unequivocal on the Today Programme: she didn't want to serve another term so renewal didn't come up. Perhaps after five years in one of the most pressurised, difficult and high-profile public sector jobs in the country, she might have chosen to move on, as almost all of her predecessors did. That, of course, did not fit the narrative of many sections of the press, preferring instead to imply she was sacked.


Almost all have chosen to highlight what is inevitable for DPPs: controversial decisions to prosecute or not to prosecute. Open and shut cases rarely make the headlines, so the difficult ones – weighing up mountains of evidence, dealing with high-profile defendants and historical accusations – are the ones the DPP and her senior team of prosecutors are inevitably judged on by the press. The 600,000 cases that go to court every year, the ones that affect the majority of citizens and make a difference to the type of society we live in, rarely get a mention. The Telegraph even led with the extraordinary headline: "How burglary, violent crime and shoplifting all rose under Alison Saunders' leadership".

Alison has been a dedicated public servant for over 30 years and has been at the CPS since it was created in 1986. She's risen through the ranks, having to prove herself with every promotion. She was also the first in-house prosecutor to be appointed DPP, having previously served as the chief crown prosecutor for London, responsible for the Old Bailey and some of the most difficult and sensitive prosecution cases in the country.

She was always keen to ensure that the CPS, not just the police, got credit when cases of public interest were prosecuted and led from the front, never afraid to confront the most controversial issues head on.

I doubt she got every decision right and, as the union that represents her prosecutors and senior managers, we have disagreed with several. She's a public figure and rightly fair game for legitimate criticism.

The recent controversy over disclosure of unused material in a series of trials has been highlighted by many as an example of her failings. The reasons for these failings are still being assessed but what is clear is that they cannot simply be put at the door of the CPS or DPP. Since 2010 prosecutor numbers have been cut by 28% as the CPS had its budgets slashed – are any fingers pointing at Mr Osborne from the Telegraph?

At the same time, the demands of disclosure have become more difficult for police and prosecutors, not least because of the huge amounts of data that can be contained in mobile devices and on social media, often a feature of the cases highlighted.

All of this is ignored as commentators seek a scapegoat for the complex failings of our criminal justice system and those with a pre-determined agenda pour their often barely hidden misogynistic bile into column inches.

It may be screaming into the wind territory but it is a worrying trend. Over the last year we've seen a series of stories targeting public servants. Sue Gray's private life was picked apart after she was asked to investigate Damian Green and I had a Twitter spat (Spitter, anyone?) with a journalist after he tried to pass off University days tittle tattle on Brexit sherpa Ollie Robbins as investigative journalism and evidence of bias.

I'm no King Canute, modern senior public servants cannot hide from legitimate media scrutiny or the targeting of those with an agenda to pursue and the means to do it. It's a tide that's not for turning but it does raise questions about who defends public servants from unwarranted attacks and how. Unable to speak publicly, civil servants rely on ministers to have the courage to challenge a hostile media.

So, whether it’s a “don’t feed the beast” strategy or reluctant ministers, perhaps there was a time when saying nothing worked but I fear those days have long gone.

The impact is not just on the individuals, though this cannot be underestimated. This drip feed of illegitimate attack, not scrutiny, adversely affects those working tirelessly to deliver vital public services and, unless a different strategy is adopted, will ultimately only serve as a very good advertisement to avoid a career in public service.

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