Crime fight hits home for Britain's justice chief Son allegedly sold marijuana

legal rules produce a farce

January 03, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- For nearly two weeks, this was Britain's great parlor game: identify the unnamed high-ranking Cabinet minister whose teen-age son was questioned by police about the alleged sale of $17 worth of marijuana to a tabloid newspaper reporter.

Well, yesterday, the name came out in the media, and it was none other than the Labor government's top law-and-order man, Home Secretary Jack Straw.

But by the time the name was published there seemed to be more farce than scandal.

Newspapers in Scotland and Ireland -- not bound by English courts -- published Straw's name, which had been been circulating on the Internet for days, anyway.

And late in the afternoon, the story broke in the rest of the country when an English High Court judge bowed to the inevitable and lifted an earlier injunction preventing the English news media from naming Straw and his 17-year-old son, William.

Even though there are reports that the teen-ager is unlikely to face criminal charges, the tale is likely to embarrass the Labor government.

The home secretary oversees a department that administers justice, the police and the prisons in England and Wales.

Straw has also staked out tough stands on tackling drugs and juvenile crime, while trying to make parents responsible for their children's indiscretions. He was also chosen by Prime Minister Tony Blair to chair a ministerial group on the family and parental care.

At last year's Labor Party conference, Straw announced, "We will not decriminalize, legalize or legitimize the use of drugs."

And he once said in an interview, "We've got to end this culture of excuse."

Last night, Straw told reporters, "Being a parent means giving love and support, and -- when it's necessary -- confronting

DTC children with their wrongdoing. When a child does wrong, I believe it to be the duty of a parent to act promptly. That is what I sought to do."

Straw, who had told tabloid reporters he wished he could have been named earlier, admitted he was "embarrassed" by the story. But he added that it would not affect his ability to speak out on juvenile crime and drug enforcement.

He also said he would not resign from the government. And he retained Blair's backing.

The imbroglio began Dec. 11 when an investigative reporter for the Mirror, in London, received a tip from a caller who claimed that a son of famous parents was dealing in marijuana.

Posing as a real estate agent, the reporter, Dawn Alford, and a colleague, met up with young Straw at a pub and arranged for the alleged sale, Dec. 13. After a laboratory testconfirmed the substance of 1.92 grams was marijuana, the newspaper's editor, Piers Morgan, contacted the elder Straw and told him what they had.

Straw asked the newspaper for time to tackle the problem. He also notified Blair's office at 10 Downing Street of the potential bombshell.

On Dec. 22, Straw accompanied his son to a police station. The son told police officers of the incident, was arrested and then placed on bail.

Without naming either Straw, the Mirror published its story on Christmas Eve.

Three days later, Dawn Alford was arrested for alleged drug possession after voluntarily going to a police station to hand over what she said she had bought in the transaction.

The Sun, Britain's top-selling daily, then jumped into the fray Dec. 30, threatening to name Straw.

Then Britain's attorney general, John Morris, was granted a High Court injunction banning publication of the elder Straw's name because it would identify his son.

Under English law the name of a suspect under 18 may not be published. But in Scotland anyone over 16 involved in criminal proceedings may be identified.

Three newspapers in Scotland identified the father as Jack Straw. English TV showed the newspapers coming off the presses without showing the name in the headline.

Irish newspapers published Straw's name's too. Then an Irish radio show reviewing the Irish press mentioned the name. The broadcast was heard in England.

The Scotsman newspaper took a high tone, saying it decided to publish the names "to end the farce that was fast becoming a disgrace to our public life, our freedom of speech and our democracy."

Martin Clarke, editor of the Scotsman, reflected the animosity between the press and the government:

"Once you had a reporter arrested, a newspaper hit with an injunction, it stopped being a story about one boy but about the government and the press. But frankly, this government thinks it controls the press."

But Brian Mackenzie, president of the Police Superintendents' Association, countered that the matter had been "blown out of all proportion."

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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