Are the Non-Murdoch media now threatening a select committee member?

Some concerning tweets about Louise Mensch MP.

I know Louise Mensch MP slightly. I was at university at the same time and we have some mutual friends. At Freshers' Fayre she tried to sign me up for the "Rock Society" (I manfully resisted, being a Stranglers and Damned fan).

I am certainly not a political supporter of hers, but she is not someone to be under-estimated and she is rightly regarded as being among the more able of the new intake of MPs. And so, against this background, I was rather concerned to see certain tweets last night.

Martin Bright, formerly of this magazine, asked publicly:

Are the media trying to intimidate @LouiseMensch?

Now, why would they do that? Well, as is well known, Mensch asked Rupert Murdoch directly if he had considered resigning at this week's select committee hearing. But I suspect that Martin did not mean anyone at News International.

There has rightly been attention paid to Mensch's incorrect claim that Piers Morgan had openly boasted in some book about phone hacking. I understand she will now retract that statement when Parliament reconvenes. All the same, the fact does remain that Piers Morgan was editor of the Daily Mirror during part of the time covered by the ICO report, "What Price Privacy".

Her substantive point is that hacking and blagging was prevalent throughout the British tabloid press. It is widely believed that the tabloid press is apprehensive that the phone hacking and blagging scandal would spread beyond News International.

Two days after the Select Committee, it was reported that the police had asked for the evidence in the so-called "Motorman" files. If this is correct, then this means newspaper groups other than News International are now in the frame for certain offences.

Mensch tells me that this week she suddenly started to receive a lot of attention from the non-Murdoch tabloid groups. I am told that her office even received a strange call from a newspaper, immediately after the Select Committee hearings ended: the ominous question posed was "Can you confirm you are pregnant?". There have been a range of other press contacts.

Guido Fawkes has now tweeted there are orders to "get Mensch" from the "very top" and there would be a damaging story about her private life this coming Sunday. I do not know if that is correct; but it certainly is not a pleasant prospect for anyone.

In fact this all becoming very odd, and it is also worrying. To her credit, Mensch has decided not to be intimidated by this sudden tabloid interest in her private life, and has chosen to reveal the apparent intimidation to the New Statesman. If this is an intended intimidation exercise, then it would raise the troubling concern that may be some attempt to pressure or discredit a member of a parliamentary select committee.

It will be interesting to see what Sunday brings, and - indeed - what Mensch and the select committee have to do in response.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent for the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder