Gordon Brown is destroying himself

The former prime minister's speech on phone-hacking was everything he is not: self-pitying, vengeful

Gordon Brown has nothing to prove. He is one of the truly great political figures of his generation. Forget the jokes and the barbs. Few of his contemporaries, on either side of the political divide, have the singularity of purpose, reservoir of intellect or passion for social justice displayed by Labour's most recent prime minister.

But he is destroying himself. He is tearing apart his own reputation and legacy with a brutality his political opponents could only dream of.

That such a reputation and legacy exist is not open to debate. Brown is the engine room of the most successful Labour government in history. As chancellor, he delivered levels of prosperity that will be eyed enviously for generations to come. As prime minister, when the world stared into the financial abyss, it was he who successfully marshalled the global response.

And that legacy is now being crushed beneath a desperate, tortured, misguided lunge for public redemption.

There are times when the House of Commons is a showcase for all that is good about British public service. And there are times when it devours its own. Yesterday it stood back and allowed one of the great British parliamentarians to coldly and calmly commit political suicide.

You'll be hearing and reading a lot today about Gordon's speech in the phone-hacking debate. A tour-de-force. Vintage Gordon. A powerful sermon against the immorality of power without responsibility.

It was none of those things. It was everything Gordon Brown is not. Self-pitying. Simplistic. Vengeful.

Phone-hacking was everyone's fault but his own. The Tory government. The civil service. His own colleagues in the Home Office.

He had fought against the might of the Murdoch Empire. He had been planning to act. If only fate, (and by implication, the electorate), had not conspired against him.

Those Labour backbenchers who roared him on should take a long, hard look at themselves. They were like a crowd at a dog-fight, drunk by the spectacle, and their own proximity to it. The very people who moments before had voiced their approval at Ed Miliband's skilful ability to secure cross-party consensus were suddenly baying like football hooligans at any Tory MP who, legitimately, attempted to intervene.

Phone-hacking is a disgusting affair. Corruption, cowardice and criminality are its hallmarks; the Dowlers, the families of the 7/7 dead and the fallen of Afghanistan its victims. Do we really have to add Brown to their number?

I spent yesterday asking people what they thought Gordon was trying to achieve. "He's freelancing," said one Labour insider. "He's out on his own. He's not talking to Ed or anyone about this". I asked someone else if anyone was trying to advise him. "Yes," came the answer, "but he won't listen".

Someone has to make him. Here's Sky's Jon Craig's description of the debate; "I couldn't help noticing a stunned silence from most members of the Labour frontbench and from wise old grandees like Jack Straw. A short time earlier, Ed Miliband had won plaudits from senior Conservatives for the measured, reasonable and consensual tone of his speech opening the debate. Gordon Brown was none of these."

The Telegraph's Allison Pearson:

For Brown to complain about the invasion of "private grief" was like Faust moaning that someone had forged his signature on the pact with the Devil. Brown told the BBC, "There was nothing you could do, you're in public life."

Actually, there were plenty of things that Brown, as a senior member of the New Labour government, could and should have done. He could have told Brooks that it was a private medical matter under Press Complaints Commission rules and she would not have been able to print a word. Or he could have gone completely crazy and put moral principle before political advantage -- a quality he extols in his book Courage. But the fact is, Gordon wanted to help Rebekah Brooks out. However upset he and Sarah were, the thought of upsetting the Murdoch empire was worse.

One Labour MP I spoke to who worked closely with Gordon during his time in government could literally not believe the stance he was adopting on the phone-hacking issue; "What are we getting? Gordon Brown, 'how I stood up to Murdoch'. Jesus. Is he serious?"

Gordon Brown is a man in pain. The pain of defeat. The pain of public rejection. The pain of an unfulfilled political journey.Those are legitimate emotions; raw and genuine. And raw and genuine is what Gordon Brown is.

But as well as revealing the real Gordon Brown, those emotions are also obscuring him. He is so much better than this. A rambling list of hostile newspapers headlines. Some bitter responses to a bunch of second grade Tory back-benchers. Is this really how Gordon Brown wants us to remember him?

Gordon Brown has nothing to prove to anyone. Least of all himself.


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Sarah Sands's diary: switching from print to radio and being banged out

The new editor of Radio 4's Today programme on taking over the role.

This week, I bid farewell to ­newspapers. I am leaving the editorship of the ­London Evening Standard to ­someone who can solve newspaper finances and am going to join BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The tradition of being banged out is shared by journalists and prisoners; indeed, some journalists have crossed categories. It is a joyously unruly sound, an expression of what I have loved in newspapers.

The resistance to regulation is instinctive in the newspaper tribe. Yet some newspaper journalists are now calling for regulation of the internet. This is marvellous cant, at which newspapers excel. We have watched with pure envy both the freedom and the money move from print to social media.

It is tiring fighting for survival but, once more, print must find a way to reinvent its purpose. We have become timid even of describing ourselves as the press. I sat through a “tomorrow industry” session at which we were advised to categorise ourselves as a data company rather than a newspaper. In the spirit of mockery, a photograph flashed up on the screen of an old Standard newspaper bill. It read: “Man in space”. I was suffused with love for it, but then I have witnessed the internet revolution and remember when the front page of the Standard was unchallenged and the cries of the vendors floated across London’s evening air: “Read all about it! West End final! Headless corpse in theatreland! Read all about it!” What newspapers still have is a bunch of clever, fun people who can put together a first draft of history that is passably correct. That is something.

Chaos theory

When I rejoined the Evening Standard eight years ago, it was in crisis. I didn’t realise it then – or why would I have come back? – but the newspaper was losing nearly £30m a year and it had somehow lost the goodwill of its readership. Under the new ownership of Evgeny Lebedev and the editorship of Geordie Greig, we made it friendlier and we made it free. We became troupers, unsure whether we would still be in work by the end of the week but determined to put on a good show until then.

That mindset is what got us through the choppy years. We integrated with the Independent, then dis-integrated. We increased our circulation from 200,000 to 900,000. We realised that being small, agile, innovative, hard-working and optimistic was a winning formula. Uncertainty can be the making of you. Brexit will take place in a similar time frame, and I fervently hope that creative chaos can work as well for the country as it did for the Standard.

Name the game

One issue I never resolved at the news­paper was the consistent use in print of first or second names. In a spirit of feminism, I asked our production team to explain why women were usually captioned with their first name while men generally went by their last name. It is not so simple. Calling an actress or model – both hog the picture slots in newspapers – by their second name can seem like a rebuke. “Delevingne parties all night” seems stuffy.

The London mayors Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan are largely on first-name terms in the newspaper headlines, partly for instant identification and partly because of their celebrity. I tried to inject distance by changing both to second names whenever I could. The claim made by the production chief was that first names are usually shorter, so easier for headlines. I never tested this scientifically, but it is not the case with our Prime Minister, nor with the new Met commissioner, though her surname brings its own sensitivities.

Voices in your head

I am asked what the difference is between print and radio. The Today programme seems to me to be the nearest thing to a newspaper: high impact but eclectic. But there are clearly different skills, which will take time to learn. One example is the broadcast convention of the production team talking into the earpiece of a presenter. On a newspaper, the editor will brief an interviewer and occasionally do a joint interview if it’s a swanky subject. But you would not crash into a room in which an interview was taking place, as if you were the detective inspector from Line of Duty. And in the interests of balance, shouldn’t interviewees be allowed earpieces, too? The whole process reminds me what a tightrope live interviewing is and how much pressure is on the presenters. Don’t they do a grand job?

Natural hazards

The BBC has been described as something between church and Post Office, and it takes time to fathom its structure and ethos. I find it helpful to remember that Today comes under the news department but sits within BBC Radio 4. Its apparently illogical positioning is crucial to its character. It is news, but with a hinterland. It is woven into people’s lives and the relationship is conversational rather than just informational.

This relationship can be dangerous. But I took my life in my hands to have lunch with Charles Moore, my old friend and boss. I was deputy editor at the Daily Telegraph when he was editor, and his ability to scent bias at the BBC has not worn off in the intervening years. I told him triumphantly that I’d thought of a way round this: I intended to introduce more items about nature and the countryside, which are reconciling rather than divisive. Birds, for instance.

Charles’s eyes narrowed. What about the anti-shooting lobby? Fish, then! Ah, that can be an attack on land ownership. Trees aren’t much easier: the arguments about bio-security and borders make the immigration debate seem civil. Remember the cause that did for the talented former editor of Today Rod Liddle? It was the Countryside Alliance, championed, of course, by Charles Moore. There’s no safe hiding place for us at Today.

Sarah Sands is a former editor of the London Evening Standard and the new editor of “Today” on BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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