John Humphrys: How Well Are We Protecting the Sheep from the Wolves?

October 29, 2021, 4:20 PM UTC

One of the supposed glories of our form of government is the concept of the rule of law. The idea is that in order to prevent the anarchy of what Thomas Hobbes called ‘the war of all against all’ democratically-elected parliaments should pass laws regulating our behaviour. Law enforcement bodies such as the police should make sure we obey them and prison sentences and other penalties should punish those who don’t. One of its chief aims would be to protect the ordinary, law-abiding citizens from those who prey on them. In simple language: to protect the sheep from the wolves. Five hundred years after Hobbes, how satisfied are we that it is doing its job?

This unsettling question has been triggered in my mind by several recent news developments. This week the Daily Mail has been running a classic investigative story about the drug trade. It involved the age-old device of using an undercover journalist to root out what’s going on under the radar. In this case it revealed how hundreds of drug barons are now using Instagram, the social media site owned by Facebook, to target young children. To turn them into addicted customers of their billion-pound industry. With the help of marketing companies to create ‘designer brands’ for them, they are enticing children, some still in primary school, to buy cannabis packaged as children’s sweets, some of them with the strength of fifty joints. They then use private messaging services to deliver the stuff. Young children have had to be rushed to hospital with heart palpitations, anxiety attacks, violent vomiting and terrifying hallucinations as a result of succumbing to online dealers posing as ‘friends’.

Some of these drug barons have up to 30,000 followers and some of them are very nasty characters indeed. The undercover Mail reporter found one, for example, who boasted of being ready to kidnap a client who’d fallen foul of him and then cut off his fingers.

In the context of doubts about the effectiveness of the system of the rule of law, the first question is: why haven’t the police themselves dug out these vicious criminals? Why does it take a newspaper, with far fewer resources than any police force, to expose this criminal activity in which some of the most vicious wolves are targeting some of the most vulnerable sheep? Have the police lost sight of what they are employed to do? No doubt they would reply that they are very much on the case. They would cite evidence of the hauls of cannabis, cocaine, and heroin they have been seizing over recent years. Yet the illegal drugs trade flourishes as profitably as it has ever done.

If we consider the effectiveness of the police in a wider context the picture is, to say the least, unimpressive. Only 8% of crimes ever lead to prosecution in the courts - never mind actual convictions. And that raises the the inevitable question. If they’re not catching criminals, what exactly are they doing? The somewhat bizarre answer to that question is that many are dealing with people who have literally committed no crime. Between 2014 and 2019 the police have recorded no fewer than 120,000 ‘non-crime hate incidents’. In many cases the ‘non crime’ has been reported to the police by someone who has been offended by the behaviour of the ‘suspect’. You don’t have to be too sceptical to point out that if no crime has been committed the ‘offence’ should not be recorded. Nor to observe that the ‘recording’ has done nothing whatsoever to add to our protection.

But the Mail story suggests a deeper concern about whether the whole system is doing its job. What’s happened in the drugs world since Covid is that much of the trade has switched from the street corner to online. The dealers the undercover journalists exposed were using Instagram. By exploiting such social media sites they can target far more potential customers than they ever could down dark, back alleys, and they can reach a wholly new clientele, namely very young children. Because of the algorithms used by social media such as Instagram, the dealers can easily extend their reach to the friends of those who’ve succumbed and the new clients, once in the net, will be offered a vast array of other dealers to choose among simply because of the way the algorithm works.

How is this ‘virtual’ but also very real world of crime and harm being policed? Facebook, the owners of Instagram (who have now changed their corporate name to ‘Meta’) claim they are doing a very good job of policing it themselves. They say, for example, that in the short period between April and June this year they removed 2.3 million pieces of drug sales content from their website. But there are good reasons to be deeply sceptical.

The charge against the likes of Facebook goes way beyond the facilitating of drug-dealing. An even greater and more longstanding charge has been how it fosters dissent, anger and hatred among those who use it. Twenty years ago or so a young teacher friend of mine said that if she could be granted one wish it would be to ban Facebook simply because of the acrimony it fostered between her pupils and even between their parents and the teaching staff. Since then it has been accused of far worse than fomenting playground tiffs, including aiding the assault on the Capitol in Washington by Donald Trump’s supporters back in January.

This week, Frances Haugen a whistle-blowing former employee, told MPs that Facebook was ‘unquestionably’ promoting online hate because its algorithm was programmed to prioritise extreme content. She charged the company with ‘negligence’ regarding the harm its algorithm was doing to society, and she accused it of ‘dancing with data’ when it tried to claim it was on top of the problem. Leaked research shows that its own staff believe the company takes down between only 3% and 5% of hate speech and just 0.6% of content that breaks the company’s own rules on violence and incitement.

In short, the message is that self-policing cannot be relied on. Parliament, in line with its responsibility under the system of the rule of law, is currently debating the Online Safety Bill, which aims to impose a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content and to give Ofcom the power to deal with those companies that breach the law by fining them up to 10% of their global turnover. But few are holding their breath that this will solve the problem. The legislation itself may get watered down on freedom of speech grounds, and even if it does pass into law, it may prove to be toothless. These immensely profitable social media companies employ the sharpest lawyers on the planet who will undoubtedly challenge any attempt to bring them to heel.

The behaviour of social media companies is not the only reason to ask whether our system is protecting sheep from wolves. There are many others. Take, for example, another story that’s been making headlines recently. Our privatised water companies have been accused of reversing decades of progress in cleaning up our rivers and beaches by allowing vast quantities of untreated sewage to be pumped into them, not all of it just the result of freak weather conditions. Last year there were more than 400,000 incidents of water pollution. More than half of England’s rivers are now in such a poor state they are not safe to swim in.

On the face of it you might think our system of regulation and penalties was proving well up to the job of protecting the sheep from the wolves. Southern Water has had to face fifty-one charges in what has been described as the worst case ever brought by the Environment Agency. It was fined £90 million. That’s no insignificant sum, but a closer look suggests the punishment scarcely fits the crime.

Since privatisation Southern Water has been making around £200 million profit a year for its owners. Like most of the water companies (and in spite of promises made at the time) it is owned by foreign private equity companies. The shareholders and the senior management of the companies have been doing very well for themselves out of it. Last year Southern Water’s chief executive earned a bonus of over half a million pounds over and above his salary of over £400,000 even as his company was allowing all this sewage to pollute our rivers. Since privatisation the company has paid £56 billion in dividends to its shareholders while burdening the company with £51 billion in debt. The odd £90 million fine is peanuts in this context, and indeed the prosecuting lawyer in the case brought by the Environment Agency accused the company of simply factoring such fines into its business model since it was cheaper to pay it than actually to tackle the problem, which would of course mean less profit to distribute to shareholders.

You might hope that in the face of such apparent corporate insouciance regarding the harm many water companies are inflicting, legislators would be on to the issue and strengthening the law. But last week MPs actually threw out an amendment to the latest Environment Bill which would have prevented the companies from disposing of raw sewage in the way they have gaily been doing: a much less onerous duty will be imposed on them. The Lords are forcing them to think again.

These are just two examples of why we might have doubts as to whether the rule of law is doing its job protecting the sheep from the wolves. You can no doubt think of others. Does anyone seriously imagine that when, eventually, the report into the fire at Grenfell Tower comes out, it won’t conclude that the ‘sheep’ who were the innocent residents of the tower block, were not knowingly put at risk by private interests more concerned with their own profit than in whether the cladding used was fire-proof? Does anyone think the system is working well when instead of providing the sort of shelter the more vulnerable sheep require, we are building blocks of flats so that absent wolves can get fatter on the profits to be made by keeping them empty? And have some of our politicians really got sorted out in their heads whether prisons are for wolves or for sheep when they even contemplate charging asylum seekers with being illegal immigrants?

There is a counter argument to all this, of course. If our lawmakers legislate and regulate more and more, our freedoms will be stolen and our enterprise snuffed out. If the police redouble their efforts to enforce the law, we shall feel oppressed. And anyway we should not be filling our jails with yet more prisoners because most are grievously overcrowded already.

Well, it’s a point of view. But what do you think? Do you think the rule of law is adequately doing its job of protecting the sheep from the wolves, or do you think it is no longer fit for purpose?

Let us know your views.