Is the Leveson inquiry too gossipy?

People love gossip, but it risks detracting from the bigger issues.

Rebekah Brooks was the big buzz of this week's Leveson inquiry, facing a full day of questioning. Many hoped that for a bombshell that would lead to cabinet resignations or arrests. In hindsight, it was obvious that Brooks would have been drilled into banality by her lawyers. But what did we have instead? Six hours of testimony on which parties Brooks attended, how the Prime Minister is unsure about his text slang (something he shares with mums across the country), who said what to who. And, on Twitter, an endless stream of commentary on her hair (mostly positive), her dress (Puritan Crucible-witch style) and her voice (surprisingly posh for a tabloid hack). By the end, even Brooks, not known for her gender politics, was riled. She said:

You have put to me quite a few gossipy items, for want of a better word: my personal alchemy; did Rupert Murdoch and I swim; where did I get the horse from; did Mr Murdoch buy me a suit; the list is endless. I do feel that is merely a systematic issue that I think a lot of it is gender-based – if I was a grumpy old man of Fleet Street no one would write a word about it.

Does she have a point? I think so. Aside from the feminist problems with analysing Brooks' appearance, there is a more general problem at Leveson with too much gossip. The great Cameron-LOL revelations came after Robert Jay, QC, asked "How were these texts signed off? Everyone wants to know." News websites published text guides for the PM within minutes of the revelation, and LOLgate was trending on Twitter for the rest of the afternoon. “Everyone wants to know” - all us plebs together, leaping on this chance to ask the great and the powerful about the intricate details of their private lives, and salivating over tiny, and pathetically ordinary scraps that they let fall from the plate. It's like the Sun for the Twitterati.

We learnt today that Cherie Blair didn't like being criticised for her weight. There was a bizarre interlude where Brooks told the inquiry about caravan holiday camps that she, the Sun staff and readers went on once a year. She revealed office in-jokes like the "Vatican-style chimney" News International staff installed at Wapping before revealing who they would support in the 2005 election. But if the inquiry, and by extension, those watching at home, get distracted by these little gossipy asides, they are in danger of missing the bigger stories. I'm sure that Brooks, as a seasoned hack, knows this. People love gossip.

The stories that matter were these: several meetings were admitted here by Brooks that hadn't previously been admitted by Cameron's office. Jeremy Hunt asked for private advice from News International on the "line" the government should take on phone hacking. George Osborne will not be appearing at the inquiry despite increasing evidence of his influence, particularly in the BSkyB bid.

It's these facts that we should be concentrating on. Jay and Levesonshould have pushed Brooks harder on the issues that matter, and not wasted time on personal details. They repeatedly let Brooks get away with "I don't know" or "I don't recall". The Leveson inquiry is in danger of becoming a huge missed opportunity. If Cameron succeeds in handing over responsibility for his minister, Jeremy Hunt's conduct to Leveson, as he is attempting to, he is abdicating responsibility to people who can't deal with it. This, no doubt, would work out very well for him.

Obviously, the fact that Brooks and our Prime Minister had private dinners is important, and we need to know that it happened. But the tendency towards scurrilous gossip has to stop, or we risk losing whatever benefit we might have accrued through this very public inquiry.

Oh and by the way, if anyone is interested, Grazia helpfully tweeted that Brooks was wearing the Marcie Peter Pan shift by Suzannah, priced at £475.
 

Rebekah Brooks leaves the High Court. Photograph: Getty Images
HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad