From Boris to the Murdochs

What can Guto Harri do for News International?

“He never struck me as that remarkable,” a former colleague of Guto Harri's told me as rumours spread that he was set to leave City Hall for News International. “But I guess he must have something going for him.”
 
The key thing that Harri has going for him is his close relationship with Boris Johnson, who Private Eye recently described as the man “fast becoming the Digger’s favourite politician”. Under Harri’s guidance, Johnson has remained consistently and vocally loyal to the Murdochs, despite most other political allies remaining quiet or deserting them altogether.
 
When the Guardian first reported on phone hacking at News International, the Mayor publicly dismissed the story as “a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour party.” And as the Met began their investigations, his policing deputy repeatedly tried to persuade them to scale back their inquiries.
 
“The caravan should move on,” insisted Boris as yet more revelations emerged. “Real people are so apathetic about the Leveson business,” he repeated again in the Telegraph last week. “In all its lavish coverage of Murdoch, hacking and BSkyB, the BBC never properly explains the reasons why other media organisations – including the BBC – want to shaft a free-market competitor.”
 
As the election approached you might have expected Boris to keep his distance from NI. But just one day after Rebekah Brooks was arrested in a dawn raid, Boris met with the Sun's editors for lunch. Following their meeting, the paper lavished extensive coverage on the Mayor, describing him as fighting hard for “White Van Man”, a claim based on his policy of extending free parking on some London roads by ten minutes. His opponent Ken Livingstone meanwhile was described simply as a “villain”.
 
Harri too has remained loyal to his old contacts. “He is known to be in constant contact with Andy Coulson,” explains one biography (now outdated). Such constant contact seems to have paid off with Harri freely admitting that his new appointment will be seen as "part of an irresistible geometrical pattern" between the Conservatives and News International. But what does Harri have to offer the company, aside from his loyalty?
 
His time as Director of Communications at City Hall will chiefly be remembered for his policy of limiting access to the mayor to all but the most unquestioning members of the media. Shortly after Boris’s election, Guto cancelled the regular City Hall press conferences. Out went the dry reports and question and answer sessions of the Livingstone years and in came an endless series of celebrity-backed ribbon-cutting events where the likes of Kelly Brook, Barbara Windsor and Peter Andre all posed grinning with the Mayor.

Questions from journalists were strictly limited at these events and Harri has consistently kept Boris away from any interviewer who cannot be relied upon to play nice. Chief among the “awkward squad” is BBC London’s political editor Tim Donovan who has repeatedly been refused interviews with the Mayor on the channel's weekend politics show. When Donovan dared to report on Boris’s links with News International, he earned a sweary on-air rant from the mayor. Boris has since gone on to attack BBC London as his “chief opponent" during the election campaign.

Other journalists have been submitted to more underhand attacks. When Boris’s former colleague Sonia Purnell set out to write his biography, “sources close to the Mayor” privately briefed that Purnell was a spurned and embittered admirer of Johnson, a smear that was hinted at in much of the coverage of her excellent book.
 
Along the way Harri has gathered a number of critics on the right. Rather than being a straightforward Murdoch appeaser, they accuse him of actually spending far too much time trying to win over people who will not support the mayor no matter what happens. Despite Boris’s public grumbles about the left-wing media, Harri invited over a hundred journalists from the BBC and the Guardian to the Mayor’s media reception at City Hall last year. The Sun, by contrast, received just six invites.
 
What Harri understands is that in a left-leaning city, Boris needs to appeal well beyond his own party. Under his guidance, Johnson has fought against Labour’s stereotype of him as a swivel-eyed Tory, backing measures such as the Living Wage and an immigrant amnesty.
 
Harri yesterday accused Boris’s campaign manager Lynton Crosby of nearly wrecking his re-election by only appealing to core voters: “That was almost the danger of the campaign, that he became more Tory at a time when being Tory seemed to be more of a liability than an asset.”
 
Despite his unassuming and amiable exterior, Harri is an effective and formidable operator. In four years he has transformed Boris Johnson’s image from national joke to a serious contender for the Tory leadership and Number Ten. This is a remarkable feat.

Transforming the image of News International and the Murdochs will be a far harder task, but if anyone can do it, then perhaps Guto Harri can.

Photograph: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era