Political sketch: Digesting the culture secretary

Helicopters were scrambled - but Hunt survives.

You could tell it was really serious when they scrambled the SkyCopter to make sure he got to court without doing a runner; by the time he climbed into the dock he looked as if it had been circling his house, if not his bed, all night.

And so Jeremy Hunt, fourth cousin once removed (for the moment) from the Queen, enthusiastic Lambada dancer and presently Secretary of State of Culture Media and Sport, finally got to meet his fate - or at least its presence on earth, Robert Jay.

As befitted the auspiciousness of the day, Jay, chief interrogator of the Leveson inquiry, had made his own special effort, matching tie with trademark yellow framed spectacles, as he prepared to embark on the long-trailed evisceration of the hapless Hunt.

The victim, whose face looked as if it had been rubbed down with a chamois leather, swore to tell all truthfully and sat down quickly as befits someone whose legs weren't getting all the usual messages.

And his nerves immediately transferred to his arms as he windmilled his way through answers to the joy of any body language expert employed to comment on his behaviour.

Mr Jay, whose method of questioning is to quietly encourage his target to make a mistake, established that the Culture Secretary had been an early cheerleader for the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB. Indeed he was so keen on it that he dropped a note to the Prime Minister backing the deal.

As his Coalition colleague Vince Cable, charged with judging the bid, went about his business Jeremy happily stayed in contact with the Murdoch camp who alerted him that all was not necessarily going well.

Having heard that Hunt texted Chancellor George Osborne, who also moonlights as the Tories chief strategist (a vacancy expected to occur soon), to say he thought Vince Cable might be screwing the deal up.

But then suddenly Vince was outed as a Murdoch enemy in the Telegraph sting operation and PM Dave gave him the job of sorting it out.

Arms, hands and eyes were all on the move when Jay asked what was the difference between Vince's anti-Murdoch stance which got him the sack from the judging job and his pro-Murdoch stance which got him it.

That was dead easy, said Jeremy, because obviously, unlike Vince, he had a place in his brain where he could lock away all his personal views and never let them affect his judgement.

"I wasn't biased because I set aside my sympathies," he said.

As the inquiry digested this, gifted Mr Jay then moved on to the hundreds of emails and texts between Mr Hunt's office and the Murdoch empire which have led some people to take a less charitable view of what then happened.

It was all these contacts which led Jeremy's special advisor Adam Smith to fall on his (or somebody's) sword and depart the scene.

Adam Smith, "the most decent, straight, honourable person," according to his one-time boss, had become just too text friendly with News Corp's chief corporate greaser Fred Michel who "sucked" him into inappropriate language.

Yes, said Jeremy, he did consider his own position, but decided the right thing was to stay.

Mr Hunt, who looked as if he was losing weight by the hour, even provoked the sympathy of Lord Leveson himself who gently warned his rottweiler to back off from biting him too much.

The Culture Secretary did provoke his own slight pause in proceedings when he announced that having got the job of deciding on the BSkyB bid, "I had to make sure that our democracy was safe."

But it was an unnerved democracy-saviour who stumbled his way through the rest of the afternoon as Jay mercilessly worked his way through message after message leaving Jeremy making desperate attempts to hang on to his job and keep his patron the PM (due up himself on June 14) out of the firing line.

It was nice of Robert Jay to remind Jeremy Hunt that he is one of the sponsoring Ministers for the very inquiry that had just spent six hours examining his entrails.

As the Culture Secretary was finally allowed his freedom, his hold on the job seemed no stronger than it had been when he arrived.

Earlier, the inquiry heard that when Rebekah Brooks resigned Mr Hunt texted: "About bloody time."

Lets hope Dave's not taking notes.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder