28 December 2013

The Queen and Alan Turing

On 24 December the UK Ministry of Justice announced that “Renowned scientist and World War II code-breaker Dr Alan Turing has been given a posthumous pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy by the Queen …”. The subsequent media reporting, fairly limited, of course, on Christmas Eve, concentrated on his work at Bletchley Park during World War 2, his being found guilty of gross indecency in 1952 and accepting hormonal treatment, and his suicide two years later at the age of 41 (eg BBC News, MailOnline).

The words "A good day to bury bad news" were never uttered, the actual remark in an email from a government special adviser to her press officer colleagues on 11 September 2001 (9/11) being:
It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?
but the practice of governments releasing information at a time calculated to attract the least attention originated long before then and will doubtless continue into the future. But why was it thought desirable to put out the Turing story just before Christmas - or, alternatively, what was the government hoping to avoid? I can think of a few things. First of all, this type of retrospective apology seems to appeal to politicians who presumably think that their rewriting history will improve their own place in it. Certainly many people believe Turing was treated badly and that his early death deprived his country of an immense talent. But in this particular case the government may want to avoid a debate as to why one homosexual should be pardoned when so many other men with criminal records for similar offences, far from brilliant but still alive, have not. For this reason I am not persuaded by the argument put forward in The Times (£) yesterday by Janice Turner that the pardon was an attempt by the Tories to appear progressive and improve their share of the gay vote – the geek vote, maybe. Nor did she explain why in that case the press release went out on Christmas Eve.

More of a problem for the government is that the pardon is yet another U-turn, having rejected it as recently as February 2012. Also probably best avoided is too much popular attention being given to the machinery of constitutional monarchy. The Ministry of Justice posted the text of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy (below), only the third, it seems, in HM’s 62 years:

To a layman it reads oddly, not so much the quaintness of the legalese, but because it is signed by Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, although in the form of a notification to him of HM’s intent, which in turn only exists because Grayling requested it in the first place! I daresay in presidential systems there are similarly tangles. There is also the irony that Elizabeth II was head of state when the Crown prosecuted Turing in 1952, the case being known as Regina v. Turing and Murray, though it would almost certainly not have been known to her at the time. What her personal opinions are about the desirability of this pardon are, or even whether she has any, we will almost certainly never know.

The announcement of the pardon can only have been helpful to the forthcoming Turing biopic, The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum who has cast Benedict Cumberbatch, best-known as BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, as Turing (above).

1 comment:

  1. A little too late but where there are certainly double standards when it comes to the 'Establishment' - http://worldinnovationfoundation.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-establishment-makes-amends-but_720.html

    Dr David Hill
    World Innovation Foundation