Goodbye, Melanie! Mehdi Hasan on the Spectator's departing blogger

Phillips leaves the Spectator as the complaints pile up.

Poor ol' Melanie Phillips. In today's Guardian, the Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi goes on the offensive:

"I don't read her, actually. I call her Mad Mel," Lady Warsi says of Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who has denounced her as "stupid".

Last week, Phillips announced her departure from the Spectator, where she has been blogging for the past few years.

On 16 June, under the headline, '"My blog's new home", she wrote:

This is my last blog post for the Spectator. I have decided to expand and develop my own website over the coming months and so if you would like to continue to read my blog you can find it at

But was this a voluntary or enforced departure? The blogger Guido Staines beat me to it but I can't help but notice how the Spectator has had to apologise to Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, on its website this week, after a blog post by Phillips made "false" allegations about Crooke's past. Phillips's decision to move on might just be a coincidence but a well-connected source tells me that the payout to Crooke cost the Spectator "tens of thousands of pounds" and left Fraser Nelson and Andrew Neil "furious" with her.

Here's the full text of the apology on the front page of the Spectator website:

An apology to Alastair Crooke

A blog by Melanie Phillips posted on 28 January 2011 reported an allegation that Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, had been expelled from Israel and dismissed for misconduct from Government service or the EU after threatening a journalist whose email he had unlawfully intercepted. We accept that this allegation is completely false and we apologise to Mr Crooke.

Crooke is a former member of MI6 who has long been the subject of vitriolic attacks from the UK's neocon brigade for having the temerity to suggest that a) we should consider talking to, and negotiating with, Islamists, and (b) all Islamists aren't the same.

He wasn't, however, the first person to be smeared by Phillips. Remember this apology to Mohammed Sawalha, of the British Muslim Initiative (BMI) group, on the Spectator website in November 2010?

Mohammad Sawalha: Apology

On 2 July 2008 we published an article entitled "Just look what came crawling out" which alleged that at a protest at the celebration in London of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, Mohammad Sawalha had referred to Jews in Britian as "evil/noxious". We now accept that Mr Sawalha made no such anti-Semitic statement and that the article was based on a mistranslation elsewhere of an earlier report. We and Melanie Phillips apologise for the error.

To lose one legal case to the "Islamist lobby" may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness -- especially since Phillips's husband, according to his own website, "is Britain's best-known commentator on the law". Perhaps, in future, she should run her blog posts past him before she hits "publish".

But "Mad Mel" shouldn't feel that bad. She isn't alone on this. Blinded by their monomaniacal obsession with Islamists under every British bed, members of the UK media's neoconservative faction have been the subject of other (successful) legal complaints and libel actions in recent years.

Stephen Pollard -- the current editor of the Jewish Chronicle who has, in the past, tried to portray me as an anti-western extremist on Twitter -- had to apologise to the London-based Muslim organisation, IslamExpo, after he described it as a racist group that promotes genocide in a Spectator blogpost in 2008.

From the Spectator website, August 2010:

Islam Expo: Apology

Stephen Pollard and the Spectator apologise for the unintended and false suggestion in a blog published on 15 July 2008 that Islam Expo Limited is a fascist party dedicated to genocide which organised a conference with a racist and genocidal programme. We accept that Islam Expo's purpose is to provide a neutral and broad-based platform for debate on issues relating to Muslims and Islam.

Pollard and Phillips have now both moved on from the Spectator, leaving its editor, Fraser Nelson, free to spend his cash on his editorial budget rather than on the magazine's legal budget. I'm sure he'll be delighted.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.