Andrew Mitchell’s bureaucratic lesson

English: Andrew Mitchell, British politician a...

English: Andrew Mitchell, British politician and Shadow International Development Secretary, at the Health Hotel “Health Zone” at the Manchester Central Conference Centre during the Conservative Party Conference 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Andrew Mitchell lost his libel case.[1] The court decided that on the balance of probabilities what PC Toby Rowland wrote down was what Andrew Mitchell said. Andrew Mitchell has learned a bureaucratic lesson: What is written down is what happened. Another way to phrase this is that if it is not written down it did not happen. This ethos dominates bureaucracies and their regulators.

The police are not in the customer service business.

In customer services, we usually believe that the customer is always right. This idea is based on trust. The company would not insult a customer to jeopardize a sale. By contrast, the bureaucratic approach is based on distrust. Only the official record, what is recorded, can be trusted. The customer has to prove their claim, even though they do not know it. Andrew Mitchell discovered that he was wrong until he can prove he was right. He did not know this before he shouted at the police officer.

The bureaucrat writes the record and the record becomes the truth.

The bureaucrat becomes the person of record instead of the customer. What the employee writes down is what happens. No matter what the customer believes they said, the customer has to prove it. When the police take notes, their notes are the official record that the court relies upon in its judgement, which can be problematic at times.[2] It creates an institutional bias against the offender. For many, like Andrew Mitchell, they will not know what the officer wrote down until days, weeks, or months afterwards. They may never know what was written down. Few will realize that what the officer writes down is the official and accepted version of events unless they can dispute it.

Does the customer know they have to record their side of the event?

When a customer becomes aware of this practice, they usually demand to record the organisation. When the distrust becomes explicit, then respect disappears. The relationship goes from consensual to adversarial. In such a situation, customers and employees might covertly record meetings and conversations.[3] In the past, they might have made contemporaneous notes. Today they want to capture the event in real time.[4] Body cameras worn by police often reduce such problems. However, this is not viable in all bureaucracies.[5]

Organisations hold the truth because they write the official record: that is bureaucratic power.

When the organisation keeps the official record, even the powerful are at a disadvantage. The vulnerable are trapped. An organisation can forbid them from recording a meeting or a telephone call if they are considered a vexatious complainant.[6] The vulnerable are unable to challenge the organisation so they have to accept that what the organisation records. The organisation holds the official record.

Can organisations empower the abuse of power?

When employees know this is the approach, they can exploit it. The customer can only prove they are right based on the official record kept by the employee with whom they are in dispute. If the employee insults them, they have no redress because the employee keeps the official record. The employee has no incentive to write down a version of events that puts them in a bad light. The only person who does is the customer or client, but do they know they need to do that?

[1] [2014] EWHC 4014 (QB) & [2014] EWHC 4015 (QB) Andrew Mitchell V Toby Rowland and Andrew Mitchell v News Group Newspapers Limited


[3] See for example

[4] See the covert technology that is available (spy pens, watches, belt buckles)

[5] and

[6] Many organisations state that the customer may not record any telephone call or conversation as part of their policy of dealing with vexatious complaints. See for example and There are many others who similarly forbid the complainant from recording a meeting or a telephone call. It is is perfectly legal under the Data Protection Act for a person to record a meeting or telephone call so long as they comply wit the rest of the Act.

The attentive reader will note that these are nearly the same policy copied from organisation to organisation. Interestingly, it also forbids the person from complaining to the MP or anyone else while the organisation is dealing with their complaint. See also One would have thought this was a breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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