Political sketch: Leveson's battle for linguistic supremacy

The Education Secretary's afternoon at the Courts.

 

When Cicero, in the fourth book of his second oration against Verres, wrote "o tempora o mores," little did he know the school swot from Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen would trot it out at the Leveson inquiry - but then he'd never met Michael Gove.

The one-time Times Leader writer - now Education Secretary - took a half day off his hols to trot his brain and its attendant vocabulary down to the Royal Courts of Justice to question why time was being wasted.

For those who have yet to meet Mr Gove, imagine a male version of Miss Jean Brodie, prim and proper but with a large streak of self-satisfaction.

He arrived at the inquiry with baggage having described its "chilling atmosphere" as a danger to free speech in an address to journalists earlier this year.

And he had clearly warmed to his theme as he took his place in the seat polished by the appearance yesterday of Tony Blair whose more jaundiced view of the press had been presented.

A man supremely confident in his own opinions, as befits someone paid to trot them out daily in The Thunderer, Mr Gove made it clear from the outset that he was there to lecture and not to be lectured.

Chief Inquisitor Robert Jay appeared a bit baffled by his new witness whose mouth seemed constantly more full of words than would fit and so even he, the man who brought us "propinquity" just recently, could only listen to someone never knowingly contradicted - who had he been in a real court would have been described as hostile.

Many and grand words, several of them in foreign languages, were spoken as the two men jousted for linguistic superiority but the Scotsman saw off his competitor as sentences rang around the courtroom.

We did discover that Rupert Murdoch, whom Gove seemed to meet on a very regular basis, was "one of the most impressive and significant figures over the last fifty years," and someone with whom he had never discussed anything relevant to the inquiry at any time and in any place.

He also had been "privileged", as he put it, to meet Viscount Harmsworth owner of the Mail stable and equally privileged to meet Richard Desmond, owner of much more besides.

And if that were not enough he had met Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, and "one of the most impressive editors of our age".

Having guaranteed good coverage in more than half of Fleet Street tomorrow - not to mention job security after the general election - Mr Gove turned his attention to the threat to freedom he clearly believes the inquiry could pose.

He asked if the cure might be worse than the disease as he rattled off word perfect replies to anything Jay put to him, and even Lord Leveson got short shrift when he tried to prick his bumptiousness.

And there was little love lost when Lord L's patience finally ran out during Lecture XXVI on Freedom: "I don't need to be told about the importance of free speech, I really don't," he said rather testily.

But Michael refused to be pricked and on he went to remind the judge to be careful when drawing up his recommendations.

Then it was back to the Department of Education where no doubt they had taken advantage of the headmaster's absence and gone to the pub.

 
Michael Gove. Photo: 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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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