Fantasy Cabinets: who do we know will be shadow ministers?

Douglas Alexander for shadow foreign?

As part of this week's coverage of the Labour party conference, I'm tipping a few outsider-ish names to win election to the shadow cabinet next week. I'm not including the "usual suspects", but that ushers in the question who it is that will definitely be there.

It is widely believed that "all" of the five leadership contenders will be in, though I am told Diane Abbott will not stand and risk defeat. Given that there are no unelected appointments to the shadow cabinet, that means she is likely to remain on the back-benches criticising fromt he side-lines and pursuing her national media profile. But of course the losing Miliband, Ed Balls -- whether he is or isn't shadow chancellor -- and Andy Burnham can all expect senior roles.

So, too, can Yvette Cooper, described by MPs as "the darling of the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]". She, though, may also have forfeited her role as shadow chancellor by backing Balls's position on the deficit. Harriet Harman is the only person other than the leader ensured a shadow cabinet role, thanks to her position as the elected deputy leader. She tells me in an interview for this week's magazine that she will "probably" take on a seperate portfolio as well. There are other certs, such as Jim Murphy.

But of course, the question of who gets which jobs depends on who is leader. Which brings me to my final name to watch: Douglas Alexander, tipped by Tony Blair in his book 'A Journey' as a potential future Labour leader. The articulate former international development secretary is at the heart of what I first termed "Next labour", and close to both Miliband brothers. He first met Ed Miliband -- with whom Alexander traveled to Bangladesh last year -- 20 years ago in David Miliband's kitchen, and having agonised over which to back opted for David and, with Murphy, is running the elder brother's campaign. If David Miliband wins, I would not be surprised if he took on the new leader's former role as shadow foreign secretary. If Ed Miliband wins however, that post would appear to be the only one he could appoint his brother to, as a continuation. That's if David sticks around.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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