Why Sir Ian Blair was right in his fight against racism
The outgoing Metropolitan Police commissioner had the courage to call wider society out on its more revolting prejudices
There are few who mourn the passing of Sir Ian Blair as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; his time in post is now widely perceived as an era of unbridled politicking, with principle sacrificed to ambition at almost every turn.
Blair's New Scotland Yard became a snake pit writhing with spin and disinformation as senior officers vied with each other to dish the dirt on their colleagues - hardly what you want from those tasked with cleaning up the sullied streets of London.
You can take your pick of the cock-ups that led to Blair's downfall, but undoubtedly the most egregious was the killing by armed police of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings.
Whether Blair was being disingenuous when he made his famous statement to the media, identifying de Menezes as a terrorist suspect, remains to be decided - and perhaps never will be - but the fact is that from then on the commissioner's days were numbered.
While one of Blair's chief accusers - the equally media-whoreish Brian Paddick - has ended up squatting in the Australian rainforest chomping on kangaroo testicles, the ex-commissioner has been vilified for his generous pension pay-off.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule that black child killings are ignored
In philosophical mood, Blair has been heard musing on the gaffes that blighted his time at the top, but although he confesses to regretting two or three things that he said to the press, his infamous remarks concerning the Soham murders are not among them.
According to Blair, his contention that he couldn't see what 'all the fuss was about' - referring to the media circus that got going in the aftermath of Holly and Jessica's deaths - is something he's determined to stand by.
What Blair meant by this - and he was happy to elaborate - was that a disproportionate amount of attention was paid to these particular murders because the victims were young, white girl children, while the media are considerably less exercised by the death of young black males.
Blair says that in the wake of his remarks - viewed as incendiary at the time - people from ethnic minorities have continued to come up to him in the street, and thank him for drawing public attention to this inherently racist bias.
Of course, there are some notable exceptions to the rule that black child killings are ignored while white ones are trumpeted to the heavens. A particularly good student, a notable young pillar of the church, extreme youth - these are qualifications enough to give a young black victim more column inches; and there are those who maintain that the reason the black victims of the spate of teenage stabbings in London haven't received more media attention is because they’re 'bad boys', not because of the colour of their skin.
There may be some truth in this, but I believe the blamelessness or otherwise of a victim remains secondary; recall that Blair himself was brought in at the Met in the wake of the McPherson Report to deal with the police's own institutional racism.
It was the killing of a black youth that led to McPherson, and it was the murder of Damilola Taylor in Peckham that resulted in an intensification of navel gazing by the British establishment when it came to questions of race and violent crime.
I'm not alone among London-based journalists, who, having written critical or insinuating remarks about Blair, were then summoned to Blair's top floor office at New Scotland Yard. Disarmingly like a self-publicising sociology lecturer from a minor provincial university, during our face time the commissioner did a good job of convincing me of what a hellishly difficult job it was policing London, and that he'd be much obliged if I put my shoulder to the common weal.
I took this thinly veiled self-exculpation over Stockwell with a whole packet of Maldon sea salt, but I remained then - and still am - impressed by Blair's commitment to a society genuinely free of the racist taint: no one but a genuine anti-racist would dare to make such unguarded remarks about institutional racism - especially when discussing an institution as dangerously vituperative as the press.
The irony that it was then Blair himself who became the accused - when it was alleged by Tarique Ghaffur that he sidelined them from promotion - was almost too delicious to suck on.
However, much as it pains people to do so it seems to me that the only way to explain what has happened at the Met is to hold two apparently - but by no means in reality - contradictory propositions in our minds at once: yes, Blair did do all he could to stamp out institutional racism at the Met; but concurrently he fostered a poisonously political culture.
It was this culture, plus a hypersensitivity to race - rather than a genuine colourblindness - that gave the very ethnic minority officers Blair was supposedly championing an equality of opportunity; not to advance by the usual career progression - but along with the likes of Paddick, plunge the knife between the Commissioner's shoulderblades.
No, I see no reason to especially mourn Blair's passing - and those who live by the spin die hopelessly dizzy. However, I doubt London will get a permanent commissioner who's any less in thrall to sectional political interests, and while he or she may be less prone to gaffes, I wonder if she'll also have the courage to call the wider society out on its revolting - and ongoing - prejudices. ·
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