A racket at News International?

The second module of the Leveson inquiry has an explosive start.

When last November, Tom Watson MP put to Rupert and James Murdoch that they were running a "Mafia" organisiation, it seemed that the dogged and fearless critic of News International had gone a step too far. And that was a pity, as up to that point Watson had asked a fine sequence of well-structured questions which the Murdochs were finding extremely difficult to evade.

The allegations that came out this morning at the Leveson inquiry suggest that Watson's comment was not as misconceived as it may have first appeared.

Let's break down a criminal enterprise into elements. Are there allegations of criminal activity? Yes, both in terms of hacking and corrupt payments. Was that alleged criminality for commercial purposes? Yes. Were there alleged wrongful payments to the police? Yes. Were there contacts with the police which provided alleged early warnings of investigations? Yes. Was the knowledge of any of this possessed at senior levels in the organization? It would appear so. Was there a deliberate silence to the outside world about what was known? Yes, again it would appear so. Were public officials misled? That seems the case with at least the PCC. And were police investigations closed down in circumstances for which there is still no good explanation? That would indeed appear to be the case.

However, all that we have so far are allegations and what can be inferred from the materials released. All those involved are entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence in respect of any criminal liability. Nonetheless, the scope of the allegations are now as serious as they can be, and there does seem to be evidence of a scale and system of improper payments which is worrying at best.

Still, Watson did perhaps go too far with his reference to the Mafia. A Mafia organisation is presumably one which exists for criminality as an end in itself. News International was always in the lawful business of publishing newspapers; it was just that a culture of criminality seems to have been allowed to develop as part of that otherwise entirely legal enterprise, and that such a culture seemed to have been knowingly insulated from any effective outside scrutiny. But it is a rather unfortunate defence to resort to say something is not being quite as bad as a Mafia. What appears to have gone wrong at News International seems bad enough on its own terms. For, if these allegations are borne out, then there was what can be fairly called a racket.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of 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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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.