19 July 2011


Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock put his foot in it on the Today programme this morning when he told John Humphrys that he favoured regulation of the press to ensure political balance in its coverage, along the lines of the rules governing broadcasting in Britain. Such regulation would spell the death of polemical partisan campaigning journalism – and as a former member of the board of Tribune he should know better.

Which is not to say that there should not be stricter rules to limit concentration of media ownership in order to encourage pluralism, but that's a different issue.

Incidentally, Nick Robinson was telling only a very small part of the story when he said on the same programme that the impartiality rules governing broadcasting were introduced because of lack of bandwidth. They date from the creation of the BBC in the 1920s, and by far the most important reason for them was the fear of the political class that without a politically neutral public monopoly broadcaster, radio in Britain would become as fiercely partisan as the press. Much the same fear was behind the maintenance of the impartiality rules when the BBC's monopoly was finally broken with the creation of ITV in the 1950s.

15 July 2011


It's all marvellous television – or would be if the BBC's journalists weren't on strike – but the implosion of News Corporation's damage-limitation exercise in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal doesn't really make a lot of difference to anything apart from News Corp's share price.

The resignation of Rebekah Brooks, following sharply on the closure of the News of the World and the formal abandonment of News Corp's bid for full ownership of BSkyB, is certainly newsworthy. How significant it is remains a moot point. Call me a cynic, but I'd put money on the following. News Corp does a lot of grovelling this week, launches a Sunday Sun in early September and puts together a "revised" bid for BSkyB around the same time. By Xmas we're back to business as usual, maybe with a superficially beefed-up Press Complaints Commission.

The only things that would really change the game would be a statutory press standards regime (unlikely, and also a bad idea) or legislation to ban any company or individual from owning more than a 10 per cent share – say – of outlets in the newspaper or subscription TV markets. But something tells me that serious constraints on media ownership are the last thing on David Cameron's mind.

As for Rebekah, I'm sure she has a future in reality TV.

14 July 2011


Shadow Welsh secretary Peter Hain wants the Welsh Assembly elected by first-past-the-post rather than the proportional additional member system,. "The only acceptable option given the AV referendum result is to have all AMs elected by first-past-the-post, and we believe that each of the 30 new constituencies should elect two AMs by that system," he says.

Hain is generally a good thing, but this is reactionary Labour tribalism of the worst kind. (Labour would do much better in Wales under FPTP, probably so well that it would become a permanent ruling party.) The result of the AV referendum was in no sense an endorsement of first-past-the-post, and – contrary to Hain's claims – there is no evidence that Welsh voters find AMS too complicated. The system has worked well in both Wales and Scotland, and there's a strong case for using it for Westminster elections too.


The closure of a newspaper is always a sad thing. People lose their jobs and there’s less to buy on the newsstands. But some closures matter more than others.

The end of the News of the World has certainly been spectacular, and it undoubtedly matters in the here-and-now of politics. The fall-out from its phone-hacking is immense: we could be looking at statutory regulation of the press within a year.

But the NoW going doesn’t in itself matter very much. Phone-hacking apart – if we accept that the NoW was the only hacker, which seems unlikely – it wasn’t doing anything journalistically that its competitors weren’t doing or trying to do on more limited resources. The Sunday Mirror, the People and the Mail on Sunday will continue to supply us with coke-and-hookers celeb disgrace stories after the NoW has gone. The NoW wasn't doing anything distinctive.

Even if News International doesn’t launch a Sunday version of the Sun, the closure of the News of the World is small potatoes.

7 July 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 July 2011

Last week could have been worse for Ed Miliband. Labour won a decisive victory in the Inverclyde by-election – and, after the party’s disastrous performance in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, there had been a real danger that it would lose the seat to the rampant Scottish National Party.

But winning Inverclyde was hardly cause for wild Labour celebrations – it was one of the party’s safest seats, after all – and in any case the victory was eclipsed by the Labour leader’s extraordinarily ham-fisted handling of last Thursday’s public sector strikes over pensions.

It was never realistic to expect that Miliband would come out with a ringing endorsement of the day of action: rightly or wrongly, Labour leaders have never taken sides in industrial disputes, and there was no reason to believe this time would be any different. What Miliband could easily have done, however, was the familiar flannel job honed over the years by his predecessors – express sympathy with the workers’ cause, emphasise that they had a right to strike and that it had been their decision to come out, blame the government for the mess and call for negotiations in good faith.

Maybe that was what he was trying to do. What came across, however, was very different – the line that “these strikes are wrong”. No doubt some bright-spark focus-group wallah had told the Labour leader that this would go down well with middle-class target-voters who were annoyed that the day of action meant that they’d had to take a day off work to look after the kids. But at a stroke the phrase put the backs up of a vast swathe of public sector workers who feel, with justification, that they have been forced to take a gigantic pay cut. Miliband seemed to be saying that the prospect of your losing thousands of pounds a year of pension as a result of government diktat matters less than the minor inconvenience of taking a day’s annual leave when you’d rather not.

As if to compound the insult, Miliband repeated it ad nauseam – most ridiculously in a television interview with Damon Green of ITN, in which he robotically answered a string of different questions with the same rehearsed non-answer: "These strikes are wrong... the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner... both sides should put away the rhetoric and get around the negotiating table." The technique has been used for years by politicians who want to get a particular 10-second soundbite on to the TV news but is rarely exposed to public view because broadcasters usually acquiesce in it. This time, however, the full ludicrous exchange was posted by the BBC on its website – apparently without malice – and went viral on the internet.

The “Miliband loop” has effectively nullified more than a year of marketing Ed as somehow different from other politicians – more ordinary, more down-to-earth, someone who “speaks human” as his supporters had it during the leadership contest last year – and has made a laughing stock of Labour’s claims to have learnt the lessons of the over-spun New Labour years. Its full impact is almost certainly yet to be felt. It’s the sort of clip, like that of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea on Brighton beach in October 1983, that is destined to be repeated endlessly. Only it’s worse. Kinnock looked like a bumptious prat. Ed looks like an automaton.

In the meantime, Labour is missing the boat on pensions. The party has failed miserably to counter the popular perception – encouraged by the Tories and their supporters in the press -- that public sector pensions are ridiculously generous and unfairly subsidised by the taxpayer. It has been left to a journalists, economists, policy wonks and the trade unions to point out that the public sector pensions bill is eminently affordable and that the real scandal is that private-sector companies have largely opted out of support for decent occupational pensions. (The bill for this, in the form of means-tested top-up benefits for former private-sector workers without adequate pensions, is of course being met by the taxpayer, but that’s another story.)

Add Labour’s lacklustre response to the government’s idiotic and divisive plans for higher education, its increasingly passive line on spending cuts and its general sense of drift on just about every other area of policy, and it’s difficult to find any grounds for Labour optimism right now. But it could get worse. If Miliband’s “these strikes are wrong” mantra presages an attempt to show the unions who’s boss by introducing symbolically big (but practically inconsequential) changes to the Labour Party constitution to reduce the unions’ formal role, we can look forward to another wasted year of introspection and incoherence. Remember 1992-93 and the battle over OMOV? Oh well. At least it’s nearly time for the holidays.


Even though it is owned by the evil Rupert Murdoch, the Times has been consistently better as an all-round quality newspaper than the Guardian or the Independent for at least five years. Discuss.

6 July 2011


Tom Watson MP in the House of Commons this afternoon (from Hansard):

News International’s decision to throw Andy Coulson to the wolves last night was an attempt to divert us from an even bigger wrong: that company was systematically, ruthlessly, and without conscience or morality, interfering with the phones of victims of murder, cruelly deceiving their families and impeding the search for justice. Glenn Mulcaire has accepted some share of responsibility for this moral sickness, but the editor in charge of him refuses to take responsibility. Indeed, far from accepting blame, she has – amazingly – put herself in charge of the investigation into the wrongdoing; the chief suspect has become the chief investigator... 
I believe that Rebekah Brooks was not only responsible for wrongdoing, but knew about it. The evidence in the paper that she edited contradicts her statements that she knew nothing about unlawful behaviour. Take the edition that she edited on 14 April 2002, which reveals that the News of the World had information from Milly Dowler’s phone. In other words, they knew about the messages on her phone...
It was a central part of the paper’s story that it had evidence from a telephone – evidence that it could get only from breaking into that phone at the time. The story that Rebekah Brooks was far from the Dowler events is simply not believable when her own newspaper wrote about the information that it had gained from that phone. 
I want to inform the House of further evidence that suggests that Rebekah Brooks knew of the unlawful tactics of the News of the World as early as 2002, despite all her denials yesterday.
Rebekah Brooks was present at a meeting with Scotland Yard when police officers pursuing a murder investigation provided her with evidence that her newspaper was interfering with the pursuit of justice. They gave her the name of another senior executive at News International, Alex Marunchak. At the meeting, which included Dick Fedorcio of the Metropolitan police, she was told that News of the World staff were guilty of interference and party to using unlawful means to attempt to discredit a police officer and his wife. 
Rebekah Brooks was told of actions by people whom she paid to expose and discredit David Cook and his wife Jackie Haines, so that Mr Cook would be prevented from completing an investigation into a murder. News International was paying people to interfere with police officers and was doing so on behalf of known criminals. We know now that News International had entered the criminal underworld. 
Rebekah Brooks cannot deny being present at that meeting when the actions of people whom she paid were exposed. She cannot deny now being warned that under her auspices unlawful tactics were used for the purpose of interfering with the pursuit of justice. She cannot deny that one of her staff, Alex Marunchak, was named and involved. She cannot deny either that she was told by the police that her own paper was using unlawful tactics, in that case to help one of her lawbreaking investigators. This, in my view, shows that her culpability goes beyond taking the blame as head of the organisation; it is about direct knowledge of unlawful behaviour. Was Mr Marunchak dismissed? No. He was promoted... 
Families who trusted Rebekah Brooks when she said she felt their pain, families who have been cruelly let down by the intrusion into private grief and the callous exploitation of their suffering – anguished families, indeed – are now being tortured yet again by the knowledge that in the world of Rebekah Brooks no one can grieve in private, no one can cry their tears without surveillance, no one can talk to their friends without their private feelings becoming public property.
The whole board of News International is responsible for the company. Mr James Murdoch should be suspended from office while the police investigate what I believe is his personal authorisation to plan a cover-up of this scandal. Mr James Murdoch is the chairman. It is clear now that he personally, without board approval, authorised money to be paid by his company to silence people who had been hacked, and to cover up criminal behaviour within his organisation. That is nothing short of an attempt to pervert the course of justice. 
There is now no escape for News International from the responsibility for systematically breaking the law, but there is also now no escape from the fact that it sought to pervert the course of justice. 
I believe that the police should also ask Mr James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks whether they know of the attempted destruction of data at the HCL storage facility in Chennai, India. Mr James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks now have to accept their culpability, and they will have to face the full force of the law. 
Their behaviour towards the most vulnerable, their knowledge of lawbreaking and their failure to act, their links with the criminal underworld and their attempt to cover up lawbreaking and to pay for people’s silence, tell the world all we need to know about their character – that they are not fit and proper persons to control any part of the media in this country.
Well done, mate.