The reluctance of the Home Office to deny publicly that it is reconsidering the restoration of the death penalty – an example of government-media relations

15th January 2021

On 25th December 2020, of all days, the following was tweeted:

There are three immediate things to observe about this tweet.

First, the content.

This is a sensational claim but it is one which, for some people, would seem plausible.

The home secretary is a past supporter of the death penalty and the home secretary is also known as being willing to use home office policy on ‘law and order’ in a politicised way.

And elsewhere the United States has resumed federal executions in the run-up to a presidential election, and the similarly populist government of Turkey has signalled that it would want to reintroduce capital punishment.

Second, the provenance.

The account is anonymous but it does have a reasonably sized following, including followers from many areas of law and the media.

The account does not link to a site for the organisation named, and nor does a Google search indicate that the organisation has any existence beyond that twitter account.

We therefore do not know who the “us” is in the tweet and how much credibility their claim should have.

As such the claim cannot and should not be accepted without corroboration.

(This is not to diss the named organisation and what they campaign for, but is just a normal exercise in fact-checking.)

Third, the circulation of thee tweet.

As of today, the tweet has had an extraordinarily wide circulation.

It has had around 1,800 retweets and 1,900 quote-tweets – often from accounts that have accepted the claim in the tweet to be true or at least plausible.

This means a considerable number of people will now believe that the claim is correct or at least has some substance to it: that the home secretary has asked civil servants at the home office to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty.

(I do not have access to the tweet’s analytics, but in my experience, such a widely circulated tweet would have been seen by over one hundred thousand and possibly up to a million other twitter users – for that is the multiplying effect of thousands of retweets and quote-tweets.)

At this stage, now click on and read this magnificent post by Matthew Scott on the legal and practical difficulties of such a restoration of the death penalty, including the range of international legal instruments that prohibit such a restoration by the United Kingdom.

In essence: the United Kingdom could, in principle, restore the death penalty – it is a sovereign nation – but it would be in breach of many international agreements if it did so.

*

So either the claim is true – which would be important for us to know – or it is untrue – and, in view of the extraordinarily wide circulation of the tweet, it would be also important for the false claim to be publicly corrected.

(In saying that the claim may be untrue, this again is not to diss the account that tweeted – they may be only as good as their source, and it is possible they heard this from a‘little bird’ in good faith.)

I happen to be in the process of preparing and writing a few things at different titles (and here on this blog) that touch on populism and the use (and misuse and abuse) of law.

I had seen the tweet several times in quote tweets, and so my first step was to find out whether there was any other relevant information in the public domain.

 

There was none.

And so it seemed that the claim should be put to the home office to ascertain whether it was true.

My email query was:

“There is a widely circulated assertion that the Home Secretary has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty – source: https://twitter.com/BameFor/status/1342495556732649478 

Can I please have a Home Office statement on this? Normally, and view of UK’s international obligations, one would expect a straight denial, without equivocation.”

*

At this stage, I expected to just get an email containing either a bland denial that the claim was untrue or perhaps an equally bland if evasive statement about not commenting on tweets.

What happened instead was a telephone call where I was told that the claim was ‘rubbish’.

Now ‘rubbish’ is one of those press officer words – like ‘nonsense’ and ‘ridiculous’ – that is used instead of a straight denial such as ‘incorrect’.

And any telephone call from a press office is rarely about providing information (that is what emails are for), it is about the press office trying to obtain information about what is to be published and then attempting to shape what is published – and not published.

It was quickly plain that the home office did not want anything published on this at all, notwithstanding the wide circulation of the original tweet.

So I asked for a statement in writing (I never take quotes over the telephone, especially not from government press offices).

The press office’s response to this request was to question its journalistic value (although one would think that a journalist is in a better place than a press office than to make that assessment).

Given the significance and the circulation of the original claim, it seemed to me that there should be a home office statement on the record.

Indeed, you would expect that the home office would be proud and open in stating that the United Kingdom was complying with its international obligations.

*

Later yesterday afternoon a statement was emailed:

“This is a completely untrue and unsubstantiated claim from an unverified Twitter account. We are surprised that despite telling [you] this, [you] are still insisting on reporting it.”

The references ‘[you]’ in the statement is to the title they assumed would publish the statement.

The statement is worth unpacking.

The explicit reference to ‘despite telling [you] this’ placed beyond doubt that the telephone conversation was not ‘background’ – the public statement only makes sense if the previous conversation was also on the record.

The ‘completely’ and ‘unsubstantiated’ are both examples of over-emphasis – if the claim is untrue, then that is all that needs to be said.

(Like a politician who says ‘absolutely clear’ instead of ‘clear’, such additional words indicate potential evasion and misdirection.)

The denial is limited to the content and detail of the tweet – there is no general statement such as ‘the home office will not be restoring capital punishment’ and still less ‘the home office is proud to respect and comply with the international obligations of the United Kingdom’

Instead of such statements, there is an explicit attack on the credibility of the source and an implicit attack on the journalistic point of even putting this claim to the home office.

The ‘insisting’ is a perfect touch – and yes, one should insist that the home office should publicly state its position on restoring capital punishment when there is widely circulated claim that such restoration is being considered.

The home office wanted the statement to either be unusable or, if published, to discredit the news title publishing the story.

(I am happy to publish the public statement here, with the appropriate context set out.)

All this, instead of a simple statement that the claim was untrue and a statement that the home office is not seeking to reintroduce capital punishment and the United kingdom will comply with its international obligations.

*

There is nothing special about what happened here – this is what happens every day between government press offices and anyone in the media seeking to obtain information which the government does not want to publish.

The only difference is that I am in a position to set out the exchange on this blog.

It is a good thing that, despite their initial reluctance, the home office was able to publicly confirm that a widely circulated claim that restoration of the death penalty was “completely untrue and unsubstantiated”.

It is disappointing that the home office sought to do this with a quote intended to deter the use of the quote and thereby prevent any coverage of that denial.

And it is disappointing, but not surprising, that despite the public interest in such a widely circulated claim being openly denied, the home office insisted on going about it in this way instead.

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26 thoughts on “The reluctance of the Home Office to deny publicly that it is reconsidering the restoration of the death penalty – an example of government-media relations”

    1. This is basically my thinking on the matter – this is simply about competence. I genuinely doubt we will ever see any real proposal to bring the death penalty back in, the whole thing belongs to another age (but then I felt the same about Brexit).

      I mean, imagine recruiting a hang-man today? Setting up a gallows? Finding a jury that would vote (unanimously?) for death? Or judges that would pass such a sentence?

      At the very least there would have to be an election campaign with it on the manifesto (otherwise the HoL would kill it off). And then one of the most bitter political feuds ever seen in UK politics with massive demonstrations at every point in the process.

      1. Stefan Kiszko, Barry George, Birmingham Six, Timothy Evans, George Kelly, Mahmood Hussein Mattan, Derek Bentley, George Thatcher, Andrew Evans, Liam Holden, Stephen Downing, Judith Ward, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, Terry Pinfold, Harry MacKenney, Robert Brown, Paul Blackburn, Bridgewater Four, Sean Hodgson, Winston Silcott, Michael Shirley, Danny McNamee, Cardiff Newsagent Three, Cardiff Three, M25 Three, Christy Walsh, Eddie Gilfoyle, Sally Clark, Donna Anthony, Victor Nealon, Siôn Jenkins, Angela Cannings, Barri White, Suzanne Holdsworth, Sam Hallam, Ched Evans, Oval Four – all were wrongly convicted and some were hanged, despite being innocent.

        1. A wrong conviction is one thing, a conviction, even of a palpably guilty person, in the face of the death penalty, in this day and age, would be quite another. This is particularly when we are talking about convictions where the death penalty was likely, none of which occurred later than the 1960’s (i.e., more than 50 years ago).

          Even assuming (which I wouldn’t) that the necessary laws could be passed, they’d have to find a hang-man, erect a gallows (or a gas-chamber or lethal-injection chamber, or even electric chair), and find both 10-12 jurors and a judge willing to condemn someone to death. There are a substantial number of people in the UK (I won’t say a majority) who would never condemn someone to death in any event.

          Any theoretical death penalty that could pass through the above process would likely resemble the death penalty we had for certain crimes between 1969 and 1998 (i.e., one that was on the statute books but never likely to be used). Certain features of the death penalty in the more liberal US states would likely be seen (e.g., a requirement for unanimity among jurors, only for certain kinds of murder etc.).

  1. This episode seems to suggest to me that department press offices are increasingly adopting the tone of certain high profile SpAds, making combative and often downright rude responses. The factual rebuttal seems to belong to another era.

  2. Among other things, this exchange seems to me to indicate that within the Press Office of the Home Office there appears to be some confusion as to whether their role is to be impartial civil servants or party political spokesman. Departmental press releases and Conservative party press releases are becoming difficult to distinguish from each other.

    Why we might ask would the Home Office not deny doing something it probably isn’t doing? The despicable Home Sec is trying to appeal to hangem and flogem voters – populism.

  3. The original statement says there is a little bird in the Home Office that talks to lawyers. This is, of course, literally untrue so the rest of the allegation can be discounted as irrelevant. The HO statement is then accurate in a limited and specific sense and will be long-forgotten once the death penalty is reinstated.

  4. Positioning herself for a party leadership bid by appealing to the back to the 1950s school of Brexit supporters? It’s all too credible. Even if nothing comes of it she may win support in her party’s backwoods.

  5. So all they have really said is that the statement “[Patel] has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty in [2021]” is untrue. So – not 2021? Or not a policy paper? Or not “the Civil Service”? Or not “asked to scope”? As you say, the lack of a straightforward denial and the vehemence of the denouncement of the tweet’s content are the interesting facts here. It feels as if public discussion of law and policy is best accomplished without reference to anything the government says these days, as it largely consists of second-rate sophistry, gaslighting and false flags.

  6. In the abhorrent (though not impossible) situation where the Home Secretary pushes ahead with this what recourse do government lawyers have to refuse on grounds of conscience to draw up such legislation?

  7. This could be – and I hope is – an example of kite-flying or virtue-signalling (I would call it vice-signalling) that is intended to show Ms Patel’s potential supporters that she is as keen as they are to restore the death penalty – and it’s only the wets in the Home Office (not well known as a principal wet sanctuary) that are stopping her.

    The problem is that, as a certain Mr Cameron found out to his cost, apparently worthless bones tossed to the dogs can rise up into a zombie army forcing through a policy formerly supposed unthinkable. And when you have a government whose members are selected primarily on the basis of being unable, or at least unwilling, to think things through, the problem could become very real.

    1. Very well put. And, of course, it was not only Mr Cameron who found this out to his cost. The rest of us have done so too.

  8. As the comments above indicate, “This is a completely untrue and unsubstantiated claim” needs some unpacking. What is the claim, and what about it is “completely untrue”?

    You asked for a statement on “a widely circulated assertion that the Home Secretary has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty” and asked for a straight and unequivocal denial.

    You did not get that straight and unequivocal denial.

    Instead, you got a response that attacked the source, and attacked you for asking the question. That is par for the course, I suppose. You were told the allegation is “rubbish” – which is not a denial, of course, just more invective.

    You were told it is unsubstantiated. Well, duh. It is based on an anonymous tweet recounting an anonymous “little bird” (presumably an inside source) at the Home Office. Part of the reason for asking the Home Office the question was to determine whether the allegation had any substance or not. The lack of an immediate unequivocal denial fuels suspicions.

    So, the meat of the response is “untrue” (indeed, not just false, but “completely untrue”).

    So which of the elements is untrue: has Priti Patel asked anyone to work on restoration of the death penalty or not? Has someone else asked for that work? Will the work product be something other than a policy paper? Is the person doing any such work not a member of the Civil Service, or not at the Home Office? Would any restoration be later than 2021? Or perhaps they don’t think they have a majority in parliament for restoration.

    “Completely untrue” implies every element is false – no one has been asked to work on this, in any capacity, at any time. So why no straight denial?

    Perhaps a passing MP can be prevailed upon to ask a PQ to get this on the formal record? What is the government’s position in relation to the death penalty? Is it still resolutely opposed? Has any work been instigated to consider any restoration of the death penalty at any time in the future; and if so, what work, when was it commissioned, by whom, and when will it be finished?

  9. I wonder if such a move – even as a scoping exercise – that was not foreshadowed in the Conservative manifesto would not be an act of political suicide: even in a Johnson government. Bojo sees himself as a “liberal-minded”, “one nation” Tory, after all. Perhaps their “little bird” was pulling their legs!

  10. From DAG’s post and the comments, it seems there are at least three possibilities:

    1) The story initially tweeted is true; and the language and behaviour (use of phone in the first instance) of this press officer show that HO “did not want anything published on this at all” (DAG).

    2) The story initially tweeted is true; and the language and behaviour of this press officer were designed to arouse suspicion and thus promote further publication of the story, in order “to appeal to hangem and flogem voters” (Dan, cf John Lambert and David S).

    3) The language and behaviour of this press officer do not necessarily mean anything– other than that press officers today are more likely to be sloppy and aggressive in their language and behaviour than they used to be. (Ian Rosam, Jane Hall)

    I’d vote for (3), as being both true and useful– because (2) is a real risk.

    If the original story is false, of course it should not be repeated. If the original story is true: What will almost certainly happen is that HO civil servants will patiently and ‘regretfully’ explain that reintroducing the death penalty is not possible, and Patel will be forced to accept this. If this happened with no leak and no publication of the original story, Patel would derive no benefit. If however the story is leaked and then circulated widely enough to get to the ears of the ‘bring back hanging’ brigade, Patel derives a benefit. So, if you don’t want to assist her, don’t circulate this story.

  11. “Methinks the press officer doth protest too much”. Deliberate obfuscation of ultimate intentions is a central policy of this administration. Hotly denied in December but reported in the FT yesterday was the government’s intention to “rip up UK workers’ rights”. The truth is too often the polar opposite of what is stated. I would regard the press officer’s denial as confirmation.

  12. Given that David Cameron would never have set up a binary 50:50 referendum on the EU, no-one would have nominated Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, and no-one would have elected Donald Trump as POTUS, we can be equally sure a civilised country would never bring back hanging.

  13. As Matthew Scott’s post sets out this is likely nothing more than an attempt to “grey” the space. To appeal to the extremes without having to engage in any real argument or any real prospect of having to implement. (How did that work out for the members of Congress?)
    However, the thing I find so odd about the death penalty argument is how lacking it is of any intellectual consistency. Putting someone to death is the most severe form of state sanctioned violence against the individual. If this is now OK, then what about other, lesser types of violence? If there were appropriate plea mitigations would the judge be able to sentence the perpetrator to blinding, or having multiple limbs amputated, or removal of a kidney? When exposed to these types of decisions most people rightly react to their ghoulish nature. So if these are wrong how can the _ultimate_ violent act be OK?

    1. The argument for the death penalty is ‘ intellectual consistent’; it’s done with a concern for the common good. Just as an infectious limb my need cutting from the body to preserve ones health.

      This is Aquinas’ justification:
      “every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6).”

      1. Hmmm. “A little leaven corrupteth” is the same as one “rotten apple”, so we should legally put to death every rotten apple in society? Where to start and where to end? Who without sin is to cast the first stone? For that matter, why not bring back stoning? It’s cheap and socially inclusive.

        1. You have confused the principle and its prudent implementation. In other words, to “safeguard the common good” justifies the use of a death penalty, but that doesn’t imply it must be the sentence in every case.

  14. Actually, one thing that would make sense in the current situation is that should the UK re-adopt (or be moving towards) the death penalty, it would no longer be elibible to be a member state of the EU. That alone might explain Patel’s flirtation with the idea.

    1. There is no absolute bar on that I am aware of on EU states having the death penalty on their statute books – if one exists possibly someone with more knowledge of the subject could point me to it? For example Latvia had the death penalty on their statute books for certain crimes until 2012, Greece had it until 2004.

      I understand that Art. 2 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights bans the death penalty. However, the UK and Poland both secured opt-outs on the EUCFR (though the effect of these opt-outs has been argued). Theoretically a new accession state could similarly have an opt-out even if EUCFR bans the death penalty. Moreover, the EUCFR is a matter of EU law, not national law.

      I think it would certainly make EU membership much more difficult, though. For example, under the present guidelines accession would be predicated on abolition – though it appears that an moratorium on the death penalty has been sufficient to meet this criteria in the past.

  15. One interesting point I take from the statement (beyond those that DAG makes, which are all on the money) is that this statement seems to have had no input from a policy official.

    I’ve been a civil servant for over 15 years. I’ve written many lines to take and statements for press office to issue to journalists. I have also done a spell in a press office (albeit back in 2012, under a very different government). The aggression, unpleasantness and lack of clarity here would never come from the desk of a policy official. I would be absolutely fuming if I discovered that a press officer had issued this statement for my policy area.

    Similarly, I am shocked that a press officer seems to think that it is unreasonable for a journalist to ask for a written statement that they can use rather than just an oral statement.

    As DAG says, if none of this is true, it would not be had to issue a simple denial.

    If it isn’t happening and want to keep it out of the news, the simplest way would be to deny it and reaffirm your commitment to international treaties. In that case, a journalist would probably (at best) ignore the story completely or, at worst, report the tweet alongside the absolute denial.

    Press offices have always generally been the most ‘partial’ parts of the civil service as their primary job is to protect the current government. However, there have been increasing examples of heavily politicised comments and actions coming from the Home Office’s communications team of late.

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