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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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