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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.