Heseltine’s act of faith and the redesign of the Independent

Plus: an incident down a dark alley

According to the prosecution in the Old Bailey trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, Brooks and Coulson – once editor and deputy editor respectively of the News of the World – had a six-year love affair. It continued after Brooks moved to edit the Sun and Coulson became NoWeditor.

Everyone is faintly surprised and shocked but they shouldn’t be. Powerful men once mated with their secretaries (as they were then called) and other junior employees. An important effect of more equal opportunities between the genders is that they now form liaisons – inside and outside marriage – with their professional peers. For example, almost throughout Nicholas Lloyd’s nine-year editorship of the Daily Express, his wife, Eve Pollard, was also a national newspaper editor, latterly at the Sunday Express. Shouldn’t sociologists be exploring the effects of bedroom intimacies on power relations?

Canary warning

Michael Heseltine has finally made up my mind on the HS2 rail link. Arguing that we should abandon cost-benefit analysis and go ahead with the project as an “act of faith”, he compares it to the London Docklands regeneration scheme he pushed through in the early 1980s against opposition from cabinet colleagues, civil servants and local politicians. Now, he says, Docklands is home to the gleaming banking towers of Canary Wharf and, if he had forecast such developments, he “would have been carted off by men in white coats”.

The white-coated ones would have been right. The area is now home to a parasitic class of highly paid financiers who led the country, and much of the world, to disaster in 2008; perverted the British economy so that it now produces almost nothing of value; pushed the price of London housing to levels unaffordable to most local people; and created in east London a wasteland of upmarket chain shops and restaurants that has no cultural, aesthetic or community value.

If High Speed 2 is going to lead to Canary Wharf-style developments all the way from London to Birmingham, then we should vigorously oppose it.

Major mistake

The trial of Brooks and Coulson also focused on why NoW reporters believed that the murdered 13-year-old Amanda “Milly” Dowler, whose mobile they hacked, was still alive. A recruitment agent left a message about a job in the West Midlands, but had dialled a wrong number. “Hello, Nana,” the call began. The reporters convinced themselves they heard “Hello, Mandy”.

This is an example of how journalists will mishear or misread to an extraordinary degree when they want a story to be true. During John Major’s premiership, a distinguished political editor believed he had discovered that, at an election meeting early in his career, Major spoke in favour of proportional representation. The hack had a yellowing newspaper cutting as evidence and the sensational story ran on the front page. Closer examination of the cutting, the sense of which had been confused by a clumsily positioned sub-heading, showed the words came from the Liberal candidate.

The political editor received this news on a Swiss mountain top and was only narrowly dissuaded from throwing himself off. A more terrible fate awaited the NoW.

Indie Python

The Independent’s latest redesign, its fifth in five years, looks elegant and classy. But need it strain so hard for novelty? “This newspaper has a proud record of innovation,” says the editor, Amol Rajan. “That tradition . . . makes me glad to see our masthead made vertical.” Which sounds a bit like the punchline to a Monty Python sketch. Equally inexplicable is the Balkanisation of the comment section, so that the columnists are scattered through the paper, with byline sketches that make them all look slightly scary. I once took a short cut down a dark London alley with Steve Richards, the paper’s political commentator. Looking at the new sketch of him, I give thanks I escaped unharmed.

Kettling tactics

It is now impossible, it seems, to go anywhere without being cross-examined. Collecting a prescription from the pharmacy, I was ushered into a side room and asked questions about what time of day I took the tablets, what I thought they were for and whether I noticed side effects. A few days later, visiting the Cambridge art gallery Kettle’s Yard with my wife, I was asked where I had heard about it, what I was interested in and where else I had been in the previous year. A day later, the same questioner was heading our way at the nearby Fitzwilliam Museum before we rapidly retreated. What happens to all this information? Who analyses it? What do they do with it? And couldn’t they just ask GCHQ?

Should we trust Michael Heseltine's acts of faith? Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.