We must all take a stand against corruption in public life

Meme by the author

The 8 April cover of The New European turned out to be highly prescient. It featured prime minister (PM) Boris Johnson handcuffed to Line of Duty characters DI Steve Arnott (played by Martin Compston) on his right and DI Kate Fleming (played by Vicky McClure) on his left. Had someone at the paper seen a preview of the next episode? The sub-heading was, “Why such arresting indifference to charges of corruption in public office?” It was perfectly on theme for the next instalment of the event-drama. Even Jed Mercurio, the series creator, found it amusing:

Mercurio says he has voted for three different parties in his life, including the one Boris Johnson now leads, so the audience should not take his political views for granted. However, he is clearly miffed about this venal government’s corruption, as millions of us are. He would have written that Episode 4 script months ago, and what with all the delays due to Covid-19, he could not have known as he wrote it exactly when it would air. Even so, with a few pitch-perfect lines of dialogue, Mercurio captured the mood of the nation. Or at least, that part of the nation that has been paying attention to what has really been going on since Boris Johnson came to office in July 2019.

Superintendent Ted Hastings, the ‘gaffer’ of AC12, an internal anti-corruption department of the police in the Line of Duty world, has just been told that he is being forced to retire and his unit disbanded. This is what Establishment white collar criminals do. They avoid scrutiny, get the law changed in their favour, or get the bodies charged with scrutinising them shut down. We should know. We’ve watched our prime minister do it.

After illegally proroguing parliament, PM Johnson has turned it into a rubber-stamping chamber. He has shut down the Brexit Select Committee responsible for scrutinising the deal and our future relations with the EU at the time we need it most. He has set up a black-list of journalists who ask probing questions. He has disbanded the LGBT panel without it having fulfilled its remit. He has perverted a review into institutional racism. Now he’s trying to shut down our right to judicial review and to peaceful protest. You’re only assured rights under this government if you self-identify as a statue, preferably of Sir Winston Churchill.

In the series, the character of “Hastings, like the battle” is beautifully brought to life in all his flawed humanity by Northern Irish actor Adrian Dunbar. Over the years we have come to admire his single-mindedness in the pursuit of “bent coppers” – one of the terms viewers at home always have on their Line of Duty bingo cards. We indulge his mild blasphemy, sure that the “Mother of God” will readily forgive him. We quote his catchphrases to one another at the office coffee machine (or for now, over Zoom): “we do our duty to the letter of the law, the letter”.

Above all, Ted is a righteous man and we love it when he rages in righteous anger. That is what made episode four of season six such a treat —quite apart from the explosive plot and the cliff-hanger that had half of Britain turning detective. There was such a moment when Ted was called into a meeting with Deputy Chief Constable Andrea Wise (played by Elizabeth Rider) and Police and Crime Commissioner Rohan Sindwhani (Ace Bhatti) to be told of plans to destroy his life’s work. He thundered:

“I am attempting to uphold standards in public office. Public trust can only be maintained where wrong-doing is held to account.”

Many of us will have imagined the scene like this (with apologies to Jed Mercurio and the BBC):

To reiterate, there is no way that Jed Mercurio could have known when he wrote that scene that we would be drowning in Tory sleaze in the middle of April 2021. It is not just the Greensill scandal, in which Johnson is acting like a giant bowling ball, knocking previous PM Cameron (with whom he has a deeply personal vendetta) off his pins, and those uppity rivals Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock, along with him. There is also the question of Johnson himself breaking the ministerial code, bunging public money to his mistress while Mayor of London, and lying about it while PM. It is a resignation issue, but ‘Honest Bob’ Jenrick’s corruption did not lead to his resignation and ‘Bully’ Patel’s breaches did not lead to hers. Do not hold your breath, therefore, waiting for Johnson to do the decent thing.

Arguably, with no degree of incompetence or corruption being enough to prompt ministerial resignations, and everyone in government helping themselves to taxpayers’ money through the ‘VIP channel’ of public procurement, we no longer have standards in public life. Perhaps that is the biggest scandal of all, and so once again we turn to Ted:

“God, give me strength. A bare-faced liar promoted to our highest office…

This is a capitulation. This is a capitulation to criminality and corruption. I mean, what has happened to us?”

“This must be a shock, Ted. I can see you’re upset.”

“It’s not a rhetorical question, Ma’am. What has happened to us? When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?”

Again, some of us may have read a little more into that scene…

It comes to something when it is left to a character in a TV drama to speak a truth, even given the happenstance of timing, that our public broadcaster, so cowed by the government, dare not. This is where we are. No doubt the ultra-thin-skinned BBC Director General Tim Davie will put the word out that Jed Mercurio is not to be re-commissioned on his watch, but my goodness that was a great moment of TV. Not even Davie, with his North Korean mentality, can prevent Ted Hastings’ last stand against corruption in public life from becoming a cultural reference that will be remembered for decades.