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
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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