Osborne emerges unscathed from Leveson

The Tories will be delighted with the Chancellor's calm performance.

Given the potential for upset, the Conservatives will be delighted with how well George Osborne's appearance at the Leveson inquiry went. The Chancellor, who was evidently well-prepared, gave an impressively calm performance that will go way some to restoring his diminished political reputation.

There were no bombshells, no revelations of inappropriate contact with the Murdochs, and Osborne successfully fielded a series of questions on Jeremy Hunt and Andy Coulson. Asked why Hunt was given responsibility for the BSkyB bid, he passed the buck to the then-permanent secretary, Jeremy Heywood, who advised that the Culture Secretary should be handed control. Hunt's publicly-expressed support for the bid was "not considered" a problem, although Osborne notably added that the inquiry would need to ask David Cameron about the legal advice he received on the subject.

On Coulson, he argued persuasively that the former News of the World editor was hired principally for his journalistic nous, not for his News International contacts ("which were already well-established"). The Chancellor, who told the inquiry that he remained "a friend" of Coulson ("though sadly I have not been able to speak to him for a year"), expressed genuine regard for Coulson's abilities as a spinner. As Rafael wrote recently, the Tories feel sorrow, rather than anger, at his downfall.

Osborne revealed that he asked Coulson whether there was "more in the phone-hacking story that was going to come out" and accepted his assurances. He added that he assumed that there was nothing more to be revealed because of statements from the Press Complaints Commission and the trial of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. In a missed opportunity, Robert Jay QC did not go on to ask Osborne whether he changed his view when the Guardian revealed that phone-hacking went far beyond "one rogue reporter". We already know from Coulson's testimony that Cameron, perhaps afraid of what he would learn, sought no further assurances at this point.

Cameron and those who advised him (including Osborne) remain guilty of showing terrible judgement by appointing Hunt and Coulson to their respective positions. The Murdoch scandal continues to dog every attempt they make to relaunch their moribund government. It has provided, and will continue to provide, Labour with an endless stream of bad news stories. But, for now, the Tories will be relieved that Osborne's appearance merely confirmed, rather than deepened, their woes.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves after giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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As crime moves online, the police need the investment in technology to follow

Technology offers solutions, not just threats.

It’s perhaps inevitable that as the world becomes more digital, so does crime. This week Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, recognised that online crime is as serious as face-to-face crime. “Hate is hate,” Saunders wrote referring to internet abuse, and the police should protect people from it wherever they are. This will add demand to under-pressure police forces. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Forty-seven per cent of crime involves an online element. Police recorded 30,000 instances of online stalking and harassment last year. People are 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery, costing businesses an estimated £144bn a year. On a conservative estimate, 2,500 UK citizens use the anonymous dark web browser, Tor, for illegal purposes such as drug dealing, revenge porn and child sexual exploitation.

The police need new technology to meet demand, a Reform report published today finds. Some progress has been made in recent years. West Midlands Police uses an online portal for people to report incidents. Durham uses evidence-gathering software to collect social media information on suspects, and then instantly compile a report that can be shared with courts. Police have benefited from smartphones to share information, and body-worn cameras, which have reduced complaints against police by 93 per cent.

Yet, Theresa May’s 2016 remarks that police use “technology that lags woefully behind what they use as consumers” still stand. Officers interviewed for Reform’s research implored: “Give us the tools to do our job”.

Online evidence portals should be upgraded to accept CCTV footage. Apps should be developed to allow officers to learn about new digital threats, following the US army’s library of knowledge-sharing apps. Augmented-reality glasses are being used in the Netherlands to help officers identify evidence at digital crime scenes. Officers would save a trip back to the station if they could collect fingerprints on smartphones and statements on body-worn cameras.

New technology requires investment, but forces are reducing the resources put into IT as reserves have dried up. Durham plans to cut spend by 60 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The government should help fund equipment which can meet demand and return future productivity savings. If the Home Office invested the same as the Department of Health, another department pushing “transformative” technology, it would invest an extra £450m a year. This funding should come from administrative savings delivered through accelerating the Government’s automation agenda, which the think tank Reform has previously calculated would save Whitehall £2.6bn a year.

As crime moves online, police must follow. Saunders is right to point to the importance of meeting it. But technology offers solutions, not just threats. Installing the next generation of equipment will give police the tools to do their jobs, addressing online hate and more. 

Alexander Hitchcock is a senior researcher at reform