When did the News of the World morph into Princess Diana?

Stop the mawkishness and sentimentality, says Mehdi Hasan.

I was rung up by BBC, Sky and al-Jazeera producers over the weekend and invited on air to discuss the demise of the News of the World. I declined.

I just don't care. About the NoW, that is. The brand. The paper. Before some of you start baying for my blood, I do, of course, care about the 200 or so people who've lost their jobs -- but Murdoch and Brooks are to blame for those job losses and not, as the Times's Roger Alton ludicrously argued on Channel 4 News last week, "the comfortable middle-class mothers of MumsNet", or the BBC, or the Guardian, blah blah blah. (On a side note, I can't help but notice that the NoW was one of the papers constantly calling for sackings and redundancies in the public sector.)

What's really annoyed me over the past 72 hours or so is the way in which people have been bleating on about the paper's demise as if someone's died. The outpouring of "emotion" for something that, let's be honest, most of us had little to do with, or little interest in, is reminiscent of those nauseating days and weeks after the death of Princess Diana in August 1997.

The most irritating claim, however, is that we should mourn the passing of the world's "greatest investigative paper". Really? Was the NoW behind the exposure of torture at Abu Ghraib? The failure to find WMDs in Iraq? The MPs' expenses scandal? Cash for questions? Thalidomide?

As for the Pakistani cricketing scandal, I mean, come on, Pakistani cricketers are corrupt, says News of the World. Shock! Horror!

Hats off, then, to Roy Greenslade (in the Guardian!) for calling on people to "put the handkerchiefs aside" and giving us some perspective (and facts!).

He writes:

The final edition of the News of the World yesterday unashamedly appealed to the emotions of its audience while casting itself as a victim of circumstances beyond its own control.

In the course of 48 pages celebrating its supposedly finest moments, it sought to play the hero while attempting to disguise its villainy. Indeed, some of the villainy was given a heroic gloss.

Greenslade continues:

Without wishing to dance on a dead newspaper's grave, especially while the body is still warm, it should not be allowed to get away with perpetuating yet more myths amid the cheap sentimentality of its farewell.

Put the handkerchiefs aside to consider the editorial that took up all of page 3: "We praised high standards, we demanded high standards but, as we are now only too painfully aware, for a period of a few years up to 2006, some who worked for us, or in our name, fell shamefully short of those standards."

. . . Yet this is the newspaper that was forced in 2008 to pay damages of £60,000 for a gross intrusion into the privacy of Max Mosley. Also in 2008, the paper paid damages to film star Rosanna Arquette for falsely claiming she had been a drug addict.

In 2009, it paid damages to the Unite leader Derek Simpson for falsely claiming he had breached union election rules. In 2010, it paid five-figure damages to Sheryl Gascoigne for libelling her over her relationship with her former husband. It was also in 2010 that the paper entrapped the world snooker champion John Higgins in a highly suspect sting operation.

This is a mere random selection from scores of the paper's post-2006 iniquities that resulted in it paying out thousands in damages. Were these the high standards to which the editorial refers?

Hear, hear! Oh, and remember the (non) plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham?

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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.