Who cares about Rebekah Brooks when we can talk about Andrew Marr?

The News International chief is accused of lying to parliament – but the press just cares about some

So we can finally talk about Andrew Marr. Hooray for us. What a victory for democracy and freedom of speech that we can write without fear about someone having sex with someone else. High-fives all round.

Meanwhile, Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, has been accused of lying to parliament. It's a story that slipped under the radar while the hyenas descended on the corpse of Andrew Marr's superinjunction, but it happened all the same: the MP Chris Bryant used parliamentary privilege to accuse Brooks of misleading the House.

He said: "Rebekah Brooks, who on March 11 2003 said she had paid police officers for information, wrote to the select committee a couple of weeks ago to say what she really meant was that other newspapers had done so. That is a blatant lie. This House should no longer put up with being lied to."

That is all very well for Bryant to say. But how can he expect anyone to be interested in such a story? Accusing a hugely powerful chief executive of a multimillion-pound corporation of lying to parliament is one thing; but did they lie to their spouse? If not, how can anyone even be bothered to fire up a laptop to write about it?

We're not interested in tales of lies to parliament; we want to know about celebrities and what they do with their genitalia. If the papers simply came out with this truth and admitted it, then I don't think there would be a problem.

"Look," they could say. "You know and I know that we're not really holding the rich and powerful to account. You just want to know which people are having a bit on the side with someone else. So here it is, not in any public interest, but simply to satisfy your craving for titbits about famous people's infidelities, because it shines a little glow of prurient happiness in your otherwise worthless little lives."

But no. We have to go through the pantomime of pretending that the reason everyone is fighting these superinjunctions is in the brave battle for truth against those naughty folk who've been caught with their pants down and are using their children as a human shield to protect their public profiles.

Even if that were true, that's not why it's happening. It's happening because celebrity-shagging flogs papers and people like to read about it – more than they like to read about evidence given to select committees, for example.

The rich and powerful are trying to use their wealth to pay for gags, the newspapers bleat. If only we could tell you about sex in hotel rooms, they whine. If only we could reveal details about who did what with whom and when, they grumble, then we could really hold these people to account.

Meanwhile, the rich, and really powerful, like Rebekah Brooks, just carry on, without fear of scrutiny from a large section of the press.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.