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
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle