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
Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.