What next in the phone-hacking battle?

Why Les Hinton's evidence is crucial and a possible replacement for Andy Coulson

The news that Les Hinton, the former News International executive chairman, will give evidence to the Commons media committee as part of its inquiry into the alleged phone hacking by the News of the World is more significant than it appears.

It was Hinton, now chief executive of Dow Jones, who appeared before the committee after the News of the World's former royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire were jailed in January 2007 for tapping the phones of royal staff.

The key exchange with the committee chairman, John Whittingdale, ran:

Whittingdale: You carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry and you are absolutely convinced that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on?

Hinton: Yes, we have and I believe he was the only person, but that investigation, under the new editor, continues.

It's worth noting Hinton's use of the caveat "I believe", which offers him some wriggle room.

Whittingdale has since said that evidence that other reporters were involved in the hacking operation "might contradict" Hinton's testimony.

Expect questions to focus on the emails uncovered by the Guardian suggesting that Neville Thurlbeck, the paper's chief reporter, was also involved.

Let's hope that the committee has more success in its face-off with Hinton than it did with Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor at the time, who still shamelessly maintains that he had no knowledge of the affair.

As I've continually argued, if Coulson did know about the phone hacking then he's too wicked to be the Tories' spin chief, and if he didn't know then he's too stupid to be the Tories' spin chief.

But in the unlikely event that Coulson is forced to step down there may be a replacement waiting in the wings. Conservative sources tell me that Team Cameron regards Matthew d'Ancona, who recently resigned as editor of the Spectator, as the ideal candidate for the job.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.