The News of the World phone hacking scandal plumbed new depths last night, with the news Sara Payne’s phone had been targeted, reports Shamik Das.
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• The News of the World phone hacking scandal plumbed new depths last night, with the news Sara Payne’s phone had been targeted.
In a particularly sick twist, the phone in question had been given to her by the NotW. Friends of Sara have described her as “absolutely devastated and deeply disappointed” by the news, with one of her close friends saying “Sara is in bits about it”.
Payne had long been used by the tabloid, and disgraced former editor Rebekah Brooks in particular – she even mentioned the work she had done with her in her appearance before Parliament this month, in an attempt to portray the paper in a good light.
This latest news once again shows Brooks and News International up for what they are, for enabling a culture in which this can happen. Still in denial, still unrepentant, Brooks even had the gall last night to profess outrage and ignorance – calling the news “abhorrent” and claiming Sara was a “dear friend”.
As Tom Watson MP said:
“This is a new low. The last edition of the News of the World made great play of the paper’s relationship with the Payne family. Brooks talked about it at the committee inquiry. Now this. I have nothing but contempt for the people that did this.”
As well as the shocking news about Sara Payne, things could a get a whole lot worse for James Murdoch, effectively accused of lying in his appearance before the culture, media and sport select committee when he denied full knowledge of the £700,000 and £1 million hush money payouts to PFA boss Gordon Taylor and publicist Max Clifford.
The committee’s members are meeting today to decide whether to recall Murdoch Jr. to explain himself.
Shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis MP said:
“The whole reason we’re in this situation is because we never got to the bottom of it at the time, and News Corporation, and News International did not cooperate with the authorities.
“They now claim they’re in full co-operation mode. If that’s the case, and there are discrepancies, it’s very, very important that he, and other people who are relevant to this, go back to that select committee and give evidence.”
Meanwhile, the breaking news this morning is that the head of the Press Complaints Commission, Baroness Peta Buscombe, is expected to resign today over the PCC’s abject failure to deal with the phone hacking scandal.
The Guardian reports:
“Lady Buscombe has faced criticism for the PCC’s mishandling of the hacking saga since she took the post in 2009. In November that year she came under particular fire for a report in which the PCC appeared to clear the News of the World and admonished the Guardian and its reporter, Nick Davies, for revelations about hacking.
“The PCC accepted the claim by News International that voicemail interceptions had been confined to a single reporter, Clive Goodman, and the investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
“It concluded that there was “no new evidence” of hacking. Subsequent events proved otherwise, and MPs castigated the commission’s report as a “whitewash”. Buscombe rather lamely admitted later that the commission had not been “fully informed” and set up a hacking review committee in order to stave off further criticism.
“But the unfolding of the revelations, with consistent sniping at her chairing of the regulator, left her exposed.”
• The main story earlier this week was the poor growth figures – Q2 2011 growth was just 0.2 per cent.
As Will Straw reported on Tuesday, the figure is less than half the Office for Budget Responsibility’s original prediction. As recently as March, George Osborne had claimed in the FT (£) his savage cuts would stimulate the economy with increased spending as a result of higher confidence and reduced borrowing costs.
The opposite has been the case – though the chancellor sought to blame everything from the Japan earthquake and the Royal Wedding to too much heat and too much snow… pretty much everyone but himself and his ideologically-driven economically-unsound pig-headed policy of cutting too far and too fast and to Hell with the consequences.
“This morning’s growth stats would be worrying in any recovery. But in the aftermath of such a deep fall in output their implications for real trends in living standards are particularly bleak. The UK economy still has a long way to climb back to pre-recession levels of output.
“If today’s 0.2 per cent figure proves right, GDP remains 3.9 per cent below its pre-recession peak. Even if we see a strong rise in Q3, this will still have been by far the longest period in recent memory in which GDP’s upward march has lost its feet.”
Also on Left Foot Forward, Kevin Meagher wrote about how the poor growth figures leave many parts of Britain in ever deeper trouble:
“The fundamental problem with our North/South divide has long been the unequal allocation of public spending; spending on transport in London is now £802 per head compared with £333 for the North West, £272 for Yorkshire and Humberside and £248 for the North East.
“It is little wonder we have such an asymmetric national economy when transport, defence, civil service jobs, science and technology, the Olympic Games, Crossrail and the first stage of High Speed 2 all see London and the south east receive the lion’s share of spending, courtesy of the public purse.
“In contrast, the north and midlands are served up piecemeal gestures like enterprise zones when they really need something akin to a Barnett formula to counter this geographic bias in public spending (especially as the northern regions are also squeezed by the more generous spending settlements awarded to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
“The bottom line with today’s dreadful growth figures and the sheer inadequacy of the government’s approach is that many communities across the northern half of the country are effectively still languishing in the economic deep freeze.”
And the solution from leading Tory thinkers to the current sluggishness? More of the same, as Nicola Smith reported on Left Foot Forward:
“Conservative Home have now decided the problem is the government isn’t right wing enough – the medicine isn’t working because we haven’t taken enough of it.
“The website has rounded up a list of key proposals from Tory think tanks for supporting growth, including: further cuts in corporate taxes; reducing the minimum wage; cutting employment rights; ending moves to a low-carbon economy.
“But the evidence – as well as an honest assessment of the problems facing our economy – doesn’t support their claims. These prescriptions would simply cause even more pain.”
And it just gets better; as I wrote yesterday:
“Coalition big wigs have been keen to offer their hapoth’s worth to George Osborne with a series of bizarre policy ideas.
“Foremost among them is David Cameron’s “blue skies” thinking guru Steve Hilton, who appears (£) to have been up in the sky with his pie in the sky idea to abolish – yes, abolish – maternity leave, and scrap consumer rights legislation for nine months. Dodgy goods? Ripped off? Missold something? Tough!
“Boris Johnson, meanwhile, ever keen to help out his fat cat chums in the City (you know, the ones whose recklessness got us into this mess), has proposed scrapping the 50p tax rate, which will help those hard pressed souls having to scrape by on a mere £150,000 a year, who have a low marginal propensity to consume anyway…
“Finally, to Vince Cable, who wins the award for silliest silly season idea yet, with his “red tape challenge” solutions of lowering the age at which Christmas crackers and liquer can be bought, an amendment to the Wireless Telegraphy Act, and making poisons easier to buy…”
They really are the gift that keeps on giving.
• The Norway massacres continue to shock, stun and shake, one week on, the country’s longest, saddest week in living memory.
Questions are being asked, and the light is being shone on the far Right, Europewide and here in Britain – with particular focus on the loathsome English Defence League (EDL), whose links with gunman Anders Behring Breivik have been exposed, links that go right to the very top of the racist organisation.
As Searchlight revealed:
“Breivik was in contact with the EDL, supported their aims and was involved in the Norwegian Defence League… Only months before he went on his murderous killing spree he exchanged several messages with EDL supporters using his internet pseudonym Sigurd Jorsalfare, the name of the 12th century King of Norway who led one of the Crusades…
“The English Defence League has close links with the NDL. The NDL Facebook site is administered by Jeff Marsh, a leading EDL organiser and football hooligan. Marsh was once given a two-year prison sentence for stabbing two Manchester United fans.
“In April 2011 the NDL held a demonstration in Oslo. Speaking at the event was Tower Hamlets-based EDL activist Darren Lee Marsh. Marsh has been a steward on EDL demos and is close to the EDL youth leader Joel Titus. He also claims to be a member of UKIP.”
Searchlight have also exposed EDL leader Stephen Lennon’s links with Norway-linked extremists, links he lied about on Newsnight, in an interview which ended with what appeared to be a chilling threat that Breivik-style terrorism was “probably only five or ten years away” in Britain.
But speculation aside, what, if anything, do we actually know about Breivik? Very little according to Dr Robert Ford of Manchester University’s Institute for Social Change, who wrote on Left Foot Forward on Tuesday:
“I can’t tell you if Anders Breivik’s beliefs about Muslims, or multiculturalism, or his past associations with the far right, or his obsessive reading and posting on internet blogs, played any role in driving his actions. I can’t tell you if this massacre is an isolated incident or part of a larger problem. I don’t know.
“Instead of offering speculations, or reinforcing those of journalists, I would like to put forward the very real possibility that murderous loners like Anders Breivik have no common background, no common cause, no organisation, and no common motivation. They represent nothing beyond themselves.
“This should be our working theory until we see, or research produces, compelling evidence to the contrary. Repugnant though many of their beliefs may be, it is no more defensible to hold the EDL or the BNP somehow responsible for the acts of Anders Breivik than it is for those organisations to hold Islam responsible for the acts of Osama Bin Laden or the 7/7 bombers.
“Finding someone to blame, and something to do, may be cathartic, but it is a substitute for thinking. Painful though it may be, we must admit that sometimes there is no one to blame but the madman, and no broader meaning to the tragedy he has committed.”
Left Foot Forward will have further analysis of the far Right in Europe this weekend.
Progressive of the week:
Foreign secretary William Hague, who stepped up the pressure on Colonel Gaddafi by declaring the rebel National Transitional Council the “sole governmental authority” in Libya, expelling the evil despot’s embassy staff from London.
“This decision reflects the National Transitional Council’s increasing legitimacy, competence and success in reaching out to Libyans across the country.
“Through its actions, the national transitional council has shown its commitment to a more open and democratic Libya, something that it is working to achieve in an inclusive political process. This is in stark contrast to Gaddafi, whose brutality against the Libyan people has stripped him of all legitimacy.”
In a wide-ranging, thoughtful, forward-looking interview on Libya and the Arab Spring in The Times (£) yesterday, Mr Hague said:
“When you meet some of these people in Cairo or Benghazi, it is an inspiring thing. They are not fanatics or fundamentalists. They want what we want. They do demonstrate that the desire for human rights among human beings is universal.”
“The next few months could be quite turbulent and difficult in Egypt; one of the risks in the Arab Spring is the unleashing of sectarian divisions…
“What has started this year will take a generation to work through. We mustn’t expect each country to be neatly done in six months. It’s not a computer game that comes to an end when you get bored. It’s not a TV programme that finishes at 10pm. We are going to be working at this for the rest of our lives…
“It’s less that Egypt will fall back into some kind of authoritarian leadership and more that the development of democracy may be accompanied by a period where there is an inability to tackle deep-seated problems…
“Who in their right mind makes forecasts about the Arab world after what we have seen in the last year? Events have shown that no one can assume they are able to carry on in power.”
Regressives of the week:
“It is simply unacceptable that customers could be forced into agreeing to switch energy supplier – with complex tariffs and unclear financial benefits – as a result of pressurised selling on their doorstep.
“When you switch energy supplier (bearing in mind that many don’t), you expect to receive good advice and make a saving each month or each quarter, not to find your bills are even bigger than they were before.
“Yet that is exactly what many found. The select committee were told up to 40% of those who switched suppliers on the doorstep did not end up with a better deal. That is simply unacceptable.”
“It’ll take some time before a new energy market regulatory system will come anywhere near to ensuring transparency for the consumer; but at a time when household bills reach record levels, industry experts argue that the wholesale price of energy is still lower than they were three years ago during the financial crisis, and many this winter will be forced to choose between eating and heating, the government must act now…
“But at this moment – when 99% of consumers are with the Big Six, who are one by one raising their energy prices by double-digits – only a referral to the Competition Commission can give bill payers confidence they aren’t being ripped off, and allow energy companies to defend their pricing strategies.
“Regulatory reform is the long game, but a referral to the Competition Commission – who could provide an interim report in short order – is the only immediate answer to addressing the real concerns we all have over the drastic price rises in energy.”
Also this week, the greedy chief executive of Scottish and Southern Energy, Ian Marchant, trousered a £2 million bonus, on top of his ‘basic’ £840,000 salary – just a week after the company announced it was raising electricity prices by 11% on average, and gas by a mean 18%. The shameful company are quite literally taking from the freezing poor to give to the super rich. Sickening.
A poll (pdf) this week revealed (graph) 63 per cent of the public are very concerned about gas and electricity prices – understandably so given the story above – while there were calls for both the government and opposition to look at how energy is generated and distributed; rather than just focusing on the cost, they should demand more innovation.
Evidence of the week:
The Home Office report showing the cost of the government’s changes to the student visa system: £3.4 billion. If found the impact of restricting foreign students on income generated by research and innovation in higher education had yet to be properly considered by the government.
“Major restrictions on foreign student visas announced earlier this year have created real panic across the education sector about loss of income. The report suggests economic contributions by foreign students will be cut drastically, producing widespread reductions in net income across the Treasury’s coffers.
“These concerns are not new, but has the government taken them seriously yet? Back in March at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration (APPGM), a group of MPs and experts warned that reforms of such magnitude will have a negative impact on higher education institutions and on wider economic growth.
“Following the meeting, APPGM chair Jack Dromey MP asked the home secretary whether the economic impacts of restricting international students would be considered – and received the response that the government had no intention of doing so.
“It seems the dismissal of these concerns has now come back to haunt the government.”
Ed Jacobs’s Week Outside Westminster:
As the Office for National Statistics published figures showing a meagre 0.2% growth in the economy over the second quarter of the year, David Cameron used a visit to South Wales to argue we should be looking on the bright side.
The prime minister said:
“I’m not saying it’s easy. Of course it’s never easy, but if you give people the skills and the confidence and the help there are jobs, they can work and that’s good for them.
“I think we should be positive because the economy is growing and Britain is growing and more people are in work than a year ago. Clearly we are, if you like, some stability in a very uncertain world.”
This was not a view shared by the Institute of Directors, however; Wales director Robert Lloyd Griffiths said:
“We’re not back in recession but with numbers like these it might feel as though we ar. As I travel around Wales, IoD members tell me the situation remains precarious and uncertain.”
Meanwhile, as the country looked ahead to one year until the London 2012 Olympics, first minister Carwyn Jones outlined his concerns Wales had been overlooked when it came to engagement with the Olympics.
“[It’s] a shame of course that more of Wales’s terrain wasn’t being used, for example, mountain biking. I understand that an artificial mountain biking track is being constructed somewhere else.
“It would’ve been easier to have come to Wales where we have outstanding facilities anyway…
Mr Jones added:
“For us in Wales we have to take the opportunity to attract people to visit Wales, bearing in mind that parts of Wales are literally two hours away from London, much closer than, for example, Scotland.
“I want to make sure we look very carefully at tempting people out of London, particularly those with an interest in golf. Not only golf, but football obviously at the Millennium Stadium, so people can see Wales and want to come back in the future and tell others in their own country of how good Wales is.”
His comments provoked a surprising outburst from Boris Johnson’s communication chief, the former BBC Journalist Guto Harri, who accused Cardiff Bay of acting like “a small child complaining”.
“If we have failed to match the rate of UK growth (in the next quarter) there is little room for manoeuvre and we may be perilously close to a further contraction in our economy.”
In a letter to the chancellor, finance secretary John Swinney argued the government’s cuts were going “too far and too fast”.
“It is now abundantly clear that economic conditions have changed significantly since your plans were first set out, and an urgent response is now required. To boost demand in the private sector, we need a targeted, cost-effective programme of capital investment that will both support immediate output and employment, as well as providing a lasting legacy.
“In light of our Access to Finance survey, and British Bankers’ Association evidence which showed lending to businesses contracted in June, we need improved access to affordable finance for all businesses irrespective of size, as this remains a constraint on the recovery.
“And we need the UK government to prioritise growth and support job security in the public sector in order to boost consumer confidence, which is being undermined by inflation, fuel prices and other pressures.”
Scottish Labour’s finance spokesman, Richard Baker, similarly argued:
“These figures are alarming and show George Osborne’s approach isn’t working. Coming on top of recent Scottish figures showing a similar trend, these latest figures do not bode well for families and businesses.
“A real problem is that we now see a similar pattern north and south of the border. Labour’s plans for a future jobs fund and our green jobs initiative can play a positive role in growing Scotland’s economy and creating jobs, particularly in areas like construction.”
The appearance, meanwhile, of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi on Libyan TV prompted renewed of debate over whether the Scottish government was right to release him in 2009 on ‘health grounds’.
Reiterating the UK government’s opposition to his release, William Hague argued that medical evidence showing al-Megrahi was terminally ill had been proven to be “pretty much worthless”.
Writing in the Herald Scotland, Iain MacWhirter concluded:
“Sometimes in life, you just have to admit you got it wrong. With hindsight it was a mistake to release Adelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, on compassionate grounds in 2009.
“The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, did the right thing by the tenets of Scots law. He thought long and hard and, on the basis of medical advice that Megrahi had three months to live, he made the wrong call. So did I, by the way, so I’m not exercising 20/20 hindsight here.”
The arrest of a 23-year-old woman in connection with the murder of PC Ronan Kerr and the subsequent release of four men who had been held, including a 22-year-old, led to criticisms of the police inquiry from Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.
“I have been in contact with the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) at the top level to register my dissatisfaction and annoyance at the operation in Coalisland. The nature of the operation has caused widespread anger in the local community.
“That is a reality the PSNI will now have to face.
“People are in no doubt where I stand in relation to the killers of Ronan Kerr. I believe that the PSNI have a duty to properly investigate this murder. However, the arrest and release of this young man raises very serious questions about the quality of the current PSNI investigation.
“Bad policing operations in republican communities will do nothing to bring his killers to justice. Indeed if anything the opposite is the case.”
It provoked an angry response from unionists, with the DUP’s Lord Morrow MLA concluding:
“Sinn Fein, at this stage, should know that they cannot interfere with how police carry out their investigation into the murder of Ronan Kerr, or any investigation for that matter.
“This is just the latest of a number of statements which Sinn Fein have made about PSNI investigations and it is about time that they realised they cannot have it both ways: you either support the police or you don’t, it’s that simple. They have to realise that now they have signed up to supporting the police, they must back the PSNI as they attempt to bring criminals and terrorists to justice.
“The only frustration they should have is that no one has been charged for the murder.”
It became apparent, meanwhile, that SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie will face a challenge to her leadership at the party’s conference in November.
Reporting the development, the BBC’s Northern Ireland Political Editor, Mark Davenport explained:
“SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie is expected to face a challenge to her leadership when the party holds its annual conference in November. It is thought the party’s deputy leader Patsy McGlone might be ready to formally declare his interest in the leadership as early as next month.
“There has been growing discontent in SDLP ranks since the party lost two assembly seats in May’s elections. Ms Ritchie replaced Mark Durkan as leader at the start of 2010. She defeated the South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell by 35 votes.
“The new leader overcame her first major challenge at the Westminster election of 2010. She successfully defended the South Down seat, previously held by her mentor Eddie McGrady, and the party retained its other two Westminster seats.
“However, during this spring’s Assembly election campaign, Ms Ritchie’s style and media performances came in for some criticism.”
And UTV’s Political Editor, Ken Ried, said:
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“Patsy McGlone is possibly upset because he wasn’t given the minister’s job [the role of environment minister, filled by west Belfast MLA Alex Attwood] – the one ministry they earned.
“But he could be one of a number of senior figures that throw their hat in the ring. And it must be said that Margaret Ritchie says she’ll fight any challenge.”