The Telegraph has been told off. Big deal . . .

A toothless PCC won’t stop other newspapers using the <em>Telegraph</em>’s tactics: the rewards outw

The Telegraph has been given a pretty stern ticking-off by the Press Complaints Commission for its sting against Vince Cable and other senior Liberal Democrats. The Telegraph will go and sit on the naughty step and think about what it's done; and then everything will carry on much as before.

It's a decision that shows exactly how powerful – or not – the PCC is. But maybe there is no point in pretending that the PCC has any power other than the ability to wag its finger and go red in the face when its unruly charges step out of line. Maybe that's what the industry wants – and maybe that's what we as consumers want. Perhaps we don't like anything other than light-touch regulation, where publications that breach the code are forced to print the adjudication decision, on a page of their choosing.

So the Telegraph has been told off, but there's nothing to stop it, or any other paper, from going out on another "fishing expedition" this afternoon, or repeating exactly what happened with the Lib Dems. And maybe that's as it should be. There seems little appetite for change, as far as I can tell. Every year the PCC asks consumers what they think; every year, the vast majority of their suggestions are politely rejected. And no one makes a fuss about it. So, it may not be unfair to conclude that we must be happy with the current situation.

Richard Desmond's newspapers and magazines have pulled out of the self-regulation agreement without any considerable difference or shrieking outcry. Desmond has saved himself the cost of the whole self-regulation business, and everything has carried on.

Looked at from Desmond's point of view, it makes sense. Under the PCC, he had to pay money to be told, every now and then, that his newspapers had done something wrong – and bear the consequences. Well, I say "consequences", but there were no consequences other than having to print the adjudication. Everything carried on just as it was. Why pay for nothing to happen when you can pay nothing for nothing to happen?

There has been no great clamour for the Desmond newspapers to return. Readers have not demanded that Desmond's newspapers and magazines should return to the fold of the PCC, nor wrung their hands in worry about where to complain to get justice when they have a problem. It may be because we're entirely happy with the way things are, with a PCC regulating some of our newspapers and leaving others to fend for themselves; or it may be because readers don't anticipate there being any benefits to Desmond's papers being back under the PCC. It could be that, I suppose.

So, the Telegraph has been told off. Big deal. It got a huge story out of the secret recordings, several days' worth of front-page exclusives. Put that in one pan and put the wagging finger of the PCC in the other, and you can see whether it will dissuade anyone from using such tactics in the future.

And we don't complain, we don't demand reform of the PCC, we don't want things to change; so we must be happy that this is the way things work.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser