Police corruption, the duck house of Hackgate and King Lear for girls

Rebekah Brooks's horse is the £1,645 duck house of Hackgate.

Leveson-watchers were expecting the second part of the inquiry, focusing on the relationship between the press and the police, to be the most interesting. And so it is.

On 27 February, we had Sue Akers, a deputy assistant commissioner at the Met, telling Lord Justice Leveson that there was "a culture at the Sun of illegal payments" to police officers and public officials, with one trousering £80,000 over a number of years. (Contrast that with the Times's report a few days after the most recent arrests, worrying that a Sun hack was "questioned over a £50 lunch claim".)

The next day, former BBC Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames told the inquiry that she was placed under surveillance by the News of the World after her husband, a police officer, became the "face" of one of several tortuous investigations into the murder of a man named Daniel Morgan. One of the suspects was Morgan's business partner, Jonathan Rees, a private investigator paid £150,000 a year by the NoW when it was edited by Andy Coulson. She told the inquiry that Rees, who was eventually tried for the 1987 murder in 2011 (the case collapsed), had "close links" to the paper's news editor.

So why was Hames put under surveillance? Paragraph 40 of her witness statement puts it clearly: "I believe that the real reason for the News of the World placing us under surveillance was that suspects in the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry were using their association with a powerful and well-resourced newspaper to try to intimidate us and so attempt to subvert the investigation."

If that is true, it's frightening. And the Leveson inquiry can never be mocked as a "celebrity hurt-feelings tribunal" again.

Her kingdom for a horse
Next to those two allegations, it was easy to miss the news that Scotland Yard had tipped off News International's chief executive Rebekah Brooks about the extent of hacking as early as 2006. Sportingly, they asked her if she "wishe[d] to take it further" than the arrests of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire.

The flood of new revelations not only makes the abrupt closure of the NoW more and more understandable, but the opening of the Sun on Sunday a provocative move. By Tuesday, things were looking so bad that some suggested the story of the Met "loaning" Rebekah Brooks a retired police horse had been deliberately leaked to divert attention. That's possibly a bit far-fetched - not to mention a terrible idea, given that the intricacies of claim and counter-claim are hard to keep up with, but "she was so close to police they lent her a horse" is easily digestible. It's the £1,645 duck house of Hackgate.

Out to lunch
I hope there's better to come from WikiLeaks's latest venture, the release of five million emails from the US-based intelligence firm Stratfor. So far, observations by this apparently shadowy organisation include the breathless: "I got a lot of info on [Swedish politician] Carl Bildt. . . Bildt apparently super tall, has photographic memory and is very smart. . . Bildt believes that Sweden should become a world power." (That was marked "SPECIAL HANDLING: Secure".)

Another email promisingly begins: "Admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations." However, it turns out to be responding to Rob in the finance department, who complains that "someone has taken the lunch that I brought in. . . That's commonly known as stealing".

Past tents
My morning walk to work is a little less interesting now that the Occupy protesters have been evicted from St Paul's. Every morning, there was a quiet bustle of activity; later, there were talks in the "university tent" and pleas for food donations outside the canteen. Did the protesters achieve their aims? It's impossible to say, not least because their aims were so nebulous. Unlike many protest movements, they did not start timid and become more radicalised - they started off fighting for the dismantling of capitalism and ended up arguing for their right to exist. With the tuition-fee protests more violent and the outcry against the coalition's NHS and school reforms likely to be deeper and more widespread, I doubt Occupy will be more than a footnote in the history of David Cameron's coalition goverment. But still, as I trudge past the steps of the cathedral, its cream stone looks suddenly bare.

Setting the Vagenda
I gave up women's mags for blood pressure-related reasons some years ago, but I might be tempted back by the online-only Vagenda, which is acerbic and hilarious in equal measure. Its tagline is "Like King Lear, but for girls" - which is how Grazia described The Iron Lady - and it has the pasted-up look of an old-school underground magazine.

Vagenda was started less than a month ago by a group of largely anonymous female writers who decided "the women's press is a large hadron collider of bullshit and that something needed to be done". As someone who never again wishes to be told which £900 handbag is "this season's must-have" because its makers have bought a shedload of adverts, I applaud it.

Dislike a Virgin
Sorry to turn this page into First Thoughts on Virgin Media, but I read Peter Wilby's travails with the company with interest last week, as I had an engineer due round to instal my broadband on Saturday. Internet providers come just above letting agents (and below budget airlines) on my League of Companies Who Treat You Badly Because They Can Get Away With It, so I was shocked to my core when the whole thing went without a hitch. The engineer departed, I retired to my bedroom to work on my laptop . . . and the door refused to shut. Yes, he'd wired the cable right into the door frame.

Next week: Peter Wilby

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times