In just a few hours the last ever edition of the News of the World will hit the newsstands, at the end of a tumultuos week for Britain's media and politicians.
To receive Look Left in your inbox before it appears on the website, sign up to the Left Foot Forward email service
• In just a few hours the last ever edition of the News of the World will hit the newsstands, 168 years old, at the end of a week in which politicians finally stood up to Rupert Murdoch and his empire.
When Tom Watson stood up in Parliament on Monday afternoon to reveal the NotW had hacked into murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile it triggered an avalanche of revelations, and a domino-effect of political and commercial consequences, culminating in the demise of Murdoch’s first British newspaper.
The full list of allegations that have emerged this week is too extensive to be recited in just one article, ranging from the hacking of Milly’s phone to the hacking of the phones of Holly and Jessica’s parents; Madeline McCann’s parents; the families of dead servicemen; the families of the 7/7 victims; even George Osborne.
There are reports that News International executives have deleted millions of emails, the 21st-century equivalent of shredding incriminating documents by candlelight – a cover-up being compared in some quarters to the Watergate scandal – while last night embattled NI chief executive Rebekah Brooks claimed “there are worse revelations to come” over the next year.
And, lest we forget, Murdoch isn’t the only poisonous influence in our press – the Daily Mail appear to have skated under the radar this week, but as Steve Coogan said on Newsnight last night, and as Alastair Campbell wrote on his blog this morning, it won’t be long before the spotlight is shone on Paul Dacre. His time will surely come.
• The other major development yesterday was the arrest of Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s former head of communications.
The decision to employ Coulson, his closeness to Mr Cameron, and the Tory leader’s support for, and refusal to even countenance condemnation of him, have brought the scandal right to the heart of 10 Downing Street, and has led to a collapse of faith in the prime minister’s judgement from the press and his former admirers on the right.
For Labour, however, Ed Miliband has been streets ahead, in terms of political strategy, positioning and points scoring – at all times aligning himself on the right side of public opinion, from revulsion at the new hacking allegations to denouncing Brooks, keeping the pressure up on Coulson and calling for a pause in the News Corp/BSkyB takeover deal.
And on the subject of the deal, a decision has indeed been deferred to September, though the odds on it getting waved through by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt lengthen by the day. It would be near political suicide for the coalition to say yes without at least submitting it to the Competition Commission and Ofcom, and even then approval may be seen as toxic to the government. Furthermore, reports last night suggest the deal “could collapse” anyway.
But what of Mr Cameron, described as being “in the sewer” by Peter Oborne in the Telegraph on Thursday, and of having been left “horribly compromised” by his ties to News International. Today, Oborne again questions Cameron’s “poor judgement”, while likening the News of the World to “a flourishing criminal concern that took an evil pleasure in destroying people’s lives”.
The prime minister’s authority appears diminished, his grip weakened, his inability to articulate the public mood painful to watch; he’s playing catch-up, dancing to Ed Miliband’s tune – the concession of a judge-led inquiry just one example. He needs to show contrition over Coulson, adopt a tougher line on BSkyB and Brooks, draw a line under the past, lead public opinion and lead the debate on the media reforms this country so badly needs.
• So what, then of the press? How best does the industry extricate itself from this mess, and how can we strike the right balance between freedom and regulation?
In a speech to Reuters yesterday morning, Ed Miliband called the Press Complaints Commission a “toothless poodle”, saying it had “totally failed” to tackle the hacking scandal, and had “failed to get to the bottom of the allegations about what happened at News International in 2009”, adding the PCC “cannot restore trust in self-regulation”, and should be “put out of its misery”.
Its lack of bite had been cruelly exposed on the Daily Politics on Tuesday, when PCC chair Baroness Peta Buscombe was taken to the cleaners by Andrew Neil over the watchdog’s complete and utter inaction over phone hacking, her only reply appearing to be “we were lied to”, highlighting most clearly its poodle-like status. Mr Miliband is right.
As has been patently clear for many years, the PCC is not fit for purpose. I need say no more than remind you the chair of its Editors’ Code of Practice committee is Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, while the Express, owned by Richard Desmond (a man who, writes Richard Ingrams in today’s Indy, makes Rupert Murdoch “seem almost respectable”) withdrew from the PCC in January.
Self regulation has failed. Politicians, press and public must turn the horrible, sickening, beyond disgusting events of the past week into an opportunity for a once-in-a-generation chance to reshape the relationship between all three. As Tony Blair once said, “the Kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux”; it’s time to seize the moment and reshape society for the better.
Progressive of the week:
Hugh Grant, who exposed the phone hacking scandal when he covertly recorded a conversation between himself and former NotW features editor Paul McMullan, in which the hack revealed details of illegality by the newspaper. Hugh was simply brilliant on Question Time on Thursday, describing the closure of the NotW as a “cynical managerial manoeuvre”.
“Clearly, the News of the World was going out of business anyway, people were not gonna buy it on Sunday, advertisers were falling out in their droves – and all credit to them, and those companies should be applauded. It keeps Murdoch’s costs down; it was a losing company anyway.
“I strongly suspect we shall presently be seeing the Sunday Sun; I heard on the radio that someone’s spotted that only a few days ago, SundaySun.com was booked as a domain name, mysteriously, and I think we should see this for what it is.
“It is a very cynical managerial manoeuvre which has put several hundred not-evil people – there were certainly a lot of not-evil people there, but a lot of certainly non-editorial staff out of work – and has kept, in particular, one woman, who was the editor while Milly Dowler was being hacked, in a highly-paid job.”
Grant later took on right wing shock jock and former Sun columnist Jon Gaunt over his support for Murdoch and his desire, laughably, to see a British Fox News, adding:
“Well, why should Rupert Murdoch be allowed to tell people how to vote?”
Regressive of the week:
So many candidates, Murdoch, Cameron, Coulson, Murdoch jr, Mulcaire, McMullan, the Met… but no, the most loathsome creature of the whole scandal has surely got to be the unspeakable Rebekah Brooks, the woman in charge when the hacking took place, whose shrieks of innocence and ignorance beggar belief, sacrificing hundreds of jobs to save her own, under the patronage of both Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron, surely the only people in the world still under her spell.
And it’s not just the phone hacking; by all accounts, she’s always been pure poison, as Chris Bryant – along with fellow Labour MP Tom Watson, one of the leading crusaders against Murdoch – revealed in an interview with Joe Murphy in the Standard on Thursday:
“With a grimace, Chris Bryant recalls the last time he met Rupert Murdoch’s embattled lieutenant Rebekah Brooks face to face: “She came up to me and said, ‘Oh, Mr Bryant, it’s after dark – shouldn’t you be on Clapham Common?’ At which point Ross Kemp [the ex-EastEnders actor and her then husband] said, ‘Shut up, you homophobic cow’.”
“The MP, who is openly gay, can afford to smile at the incident, which happened during a News International reception at the Labour Party conference several years ago.”
Revenge on Ms Brooks, when eventually it is meted out, will be especially sweet.
Evidence of the week:
The latest National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) GDP estimates (pdf) which suggest output grew by 0.1 per cent in the three months ending in June after growth of 0.5 per cent in the three months ending in May.
“The National Institute interprets the term “recession” to mean a period when output is falling or receding, while “depression” is a period when output is depressed below its previous peak. Thus, unless output turns down again, the recession is over, while the period of depression is likely to continue for some time.
“We do not expect output to pass its peak in early 2008 until 2013. Our track record in producing early estimates of GDP suggests that our projection for the most recent three-month period has a standard error of 0.1-0.2% point when compared to the first estimate produced by the Office for National Statistics.”
Shadow chief secretary Angela Eagle, meanwhile, said of the estimates:
“After the zero growth we have seen over the last six months, we must hope that this forecast turns out to be wrong. We need to see growth of 0.8% in the second quarter of this year to get back on track to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent three times downgraded forecast of 1.7% growth this year.
“Economic growth of 2.6% this year, which was forecast before George Osborne’s first budget a year ago, now looks like an impossible prospect. It’s time this Conservative-led government realised that without strong growth it will be much harder to get the deficit down.”
Ed Jacobs’s Week Outside Westminster:
This week saw new figures published by the Scottish government that suggested recent energy price rises could result in an additional 169,000 Scottish households facing fuel poverty. Responding to the figures, Labour leader Iain Gray called on the SNP to reverse its cut to the budget tackling fuel poverty.
“These shocking figures expose the harsh reality of big power companies ramping up fuel bills. With more than one in three Scots now struggling to heat their homes it underlines just how wrong the SNP’s decision to slash the fuel poverty budget by almost a third was. I urge the SNP government to wake up to the reality facing hard-pressed Scots and urgently reverse the cut to the fuel poverty budget.”
For the government, a spokesman argued that it emphasised why Scotland needed the powers to properly tackle fuel poverty.
“It is scandalous that so many people are suffering from fuel poverty in energy-rich Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament needs full powers so that we can do more. Ministers met with Ofgem and support the work of Ofgem to further protect consumers, deliver transparency on energy prices and ensure companies treat their customers fairly.”
On Tuesday, meanwhile, Left Foot Forward reported on new polling suggesting English voters wanted a say over whether Scotland should or should not go independent.
Labour leader Iain Gray welcomed the results, saying:
“Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Scots know that Scotland is big enough, rich enough in talent, and smart enough to make the most of all the opportunities that being part of a bigger social and economic unit, such as the United Kingdom, bring us. That’s our best chance to secure the best possible future for all Scots. This poll shows that people in England agree and I welcome that.”
While finance secretary John Swinney, responding for the SNP, argued for Scottish independence within a social union with the rest of the UK, telling BBC Radio 4:
“If I think about when I joined the SNP in 1979, the definition of independence was very different to what it is today. [Today] we argue for Scottish independence within a social union with the rest of the United Kingdom because we have so many social contacts. What our politics are about is about political control – political, economic and financial control to ensure we can create a strong and a fair country.”
As Minister for Local Government and Communities, Carl Sargeant, outlined changes to the Communities First programme to give it a much sharper focus on tackling poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that efforts needed to be speeded up if the government was to eradicate child poverty in Wales by its target date of 2020.
Report co-author Dr Peter Kenway explained:
“Eradicating child poverty by 2020 is now a monumental task and we need to go beyond this single target. Making life more tolerable for children in poverty is just as important. The quantity, quality and affordability of services, from play and childcare to health and transport, must be reviewed to ensure that they meet the needs of low-income families.
“This requires urgent action across the Welsh government and cannot just be the responsibility of a single child poverty minister – it needs commitment and leadership from the very top.”
It came as Sheffield Hallam University warned that welfare changes will see 60,000 people in Wales moved off incapacity benefits, with half leaving the benefits system with no jobs to go to. A report by the university went on to suggest a £100 million job creation scheme for 20,000 by the Welsh government to plug the gap.
The research leader, Steve Fothergill, argued:
“The coalition government’s welfare reforms are based on the assumption that there are plenty of jobs for people to go to. In most of Wales this seems wide of the mark.
“Welfare reform will begin to take effect in the next few months, as existing incapacity claimants start to be called in for the new, tougher medical test. The consequence is likely to be widespread distress and, in many cases, additional financial hardship.”
Concerns were raised over news that the independent body responsible for overseeing the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons would not be making public the number of weapons that have been decommissioned.
First minister, Peter Robinson, reacted with anger to the news, saying of the decision:
“Decommissioning was one of those issues that took a long time to be resolved: it soured the political atmosphere because of the foot dragging of those associated with criminal organisations to rid themselves of arms and support the police and rule of law. People will want to see just what has been achieved by the IICD in regard to putting the arsenal of illegal organisations beyond use.
“The public has a right to know what has been achieved and I would urge the Secretary of State to ensure the inventory, which should have been passed to our government and the government of the Irish Republic, is published.”
“It is understandable that the list of terrorist weapons was kept secret during decommissioning, but to continue to do so is wrong and could be exploited by those seeking to undermine the peace process through rumour and innuendo.”
Meanwhile, there was some confusion on tuition fees with reports the executive would be putting off a discussion on the issue until August. UTV Political Editor Ken Reid, meanwhile, reported that fees would be frozen at £3,200 a year.
Professor Deirdre Heenan, head of the University of Ulster, argued:
“We have always made it clear that we believe student fees should be kept as low as possible. In this context, we believe that the NI Executive should agree that funding the £40m shortfall would be necessary, appropriate and a priority.”