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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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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