Political sketch: Sky News is the only winner in this war

The news isn't sticking to the timetable, and it's ruining everyone's fun.

It is axiomatic in military circles, and down the British Legion Club, that there can only be one winner in a war and this week that prize goes to Sky News.

Anyone watching events unfold in Tripoli over the past few days knows that the Osterley upstart has led the way both in style and substance. The BBC rightly makes the point that it must be the people on the ground who make the final decision on whether to put themselves in the way of danger just to give us viewers the vicarious thrill of being up with the action, but being first in our business still counts.

Thus the appearance of Alex Crawford in the centre of Tripoli as the insurgents broke through was one of the most impressive moments of the conflict's coverage.

Alex, who has won many awards for being in the right, most dangerous, place at the right, most dangerous, time proved once again why this is not just luck.

The BBC's defence sounded a little hollow as it excused being absent during the storming of Gaddafi's palace, seen live on Sky, because its man was getting something ready for the six o clock news!

The real culprits for this diminution of the Corporation are not Sky, of which more in a minute, but the pesky foreigners who are simply not sticking to the script.

As we embarked on the Libyan adventure we made it quite clear that this was just another extension of the Arab Spring, but the timetabling of this event seems to have been ignored by the participants who determined to turn it into the Arab Summer with almost no attention being paid to pre-booked holidays and other August-type plans.

The rot had set in earlier in the month when those not already on the continent and apparently without the wherewithal to get there decided on some late-night, if rather unorthodox, shopping. This, you may remember, required Prime Minister Dave, after a couple of days to think about it, to quit Chiantishire for the slightly less attractive delights of Croydon. Indeed, MPs were forced to return from exotic spots throughout the world for half a day to remind those of us at home we had not been forgotten.

But no sooner had Dave embarked on holiday number two than the Libyans, perhaps emboldened by events in North London,decided to continue their revolution right through August.

Dave, who hardly had time to unpack his bucket and spade for his staycation in the West Country, was forced back on the overnight bus again to appear on the steps of Number 10 to tell us Libya was in his thoughts. He then got back on the bus and returned to his holiday.

And of course this is what lies at the heart of Sky's summer success: the holidays.

Not that it's been much of a year for the Sky brand until now. Its bosses the Murdochs, pere et fils, have spent recent weeks caught between the attentions of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Run and Plod of the Yard. Indeed the attentions of Plod may well be the reason for the higher and higher octaves achieved by Murdoch the Younger which may yet give him a new career as a countertenor.

How different from this very day two years ago when in all his pomp and circumstance he turned up in Edinburgh at the annual TV-fest (why Edinburgh? Cos it's the holidays, stupid) to lecture on the media to the rest of the great and the good.

"The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit", said the man who at the time was in charge of the News of the World, which you may remember had discovered "one rogue reporter" with his mitts on several people's mobiles, now translated into a roomful of rogues, more mitts than the haberdashery department at Peter Jones and much of the phone book of Central London.

But all good things come to an end and the Sky News end of the Murdoch empire should enjoy its success while it can for the holidays are finally over. Spotted in all his splendour yesterday was none other than the wonderfully-titled Word Affairs Editor of the BBC, John Simpson himself.

John, remembered by many as the Liberator of Kabul - not least by the BBC correspondent who was living there - hove into view in Tripoli having spent, he told us, 48 hours getting there. Whether the 48 hours were from the borders of Libya or his holiday home were not clear.

Normal service has been resumed.

By the way, has anybody seen Gaddafi?

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.