Sunday will be the test for the News of the World

If readers are outraged, the easiest course of action they can take is to stop buying the paper.

Sunday will be the test. Will regular News of the World buyers pick up another paper instead? Will advertisers want to remove their brands from a toxic publication? Or will millions of us - remember, it is in the millions - just carry on regardless?

The allegation that an investigator, paid by the News of the World, hacked into the phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, is truly shocking. The further allegation, that messages were deleted to make room for more - giving a family false hope that their daughter might return home safely - is, if true, a thoroughly callous and despicable act.

There is a sense that a line has been crossed this time. The phone-hacking saga was barely of interest beyond the media bubble when it involved politicians, or even celebrities; but this new revelation is truly sickening - sickening for anyone who considers themselves to be a journalist or who cares about the ethics of their profession; and sickening for us as punters, as people who buy newspapers and care about what they produce.

There are times when breaking the law to get a story is justified, and there are times when some behaviour, even if it doesn't break the law, cannot be justified in the context of getting a story. This case, it would appear, is the latter. A police investigation was ongoing, and may potentially have been hampered by the actions of the News of the World's investigator. So who knew what was going on, and who is to blame?

As it stands, we are told that no-one knew that this had happened. And there is no reason to suppose this is not entirely true. But even if this was the 'one bad apple' who took things too far, an investigator who had gone rogue in the quest for new stories, completely outside of the knowledge of every single employee of the News of the World, I do not think that means that no-one there can be held responsible for his actions.

Who knew? We will be asked time and time again. Perhaps a better question is 'Who should have known?' or 'Why was a culture allowed to develop in which this kind of behaviour was seen as justifiable or acceptable?' The editor in charge of the News of the World at the time was Rebekah Brooks, now the chief executive at News International, who says she is as shocked and surprised as anyone.

Those of us who are appalled and dismayed by this latest story must be careful to act responsibly with our understandable anger. If we do not, we run the risk of being no better than the mobs who wrongly targeted innocent citizens after the News of the World released paedophiles' details back in the early 2000s.

That 'naming and shaming' was part of a campaign for 'Sarah's Law', where the newspaper placed itself on the side of victims and their families, demanding justice for those affected by crime. That it should have happened at a time when one family were apparently being given false hope that their daughter was safe, just so that someone working on behalf of the same newspaper could read more harrowing and intensely private messages left from concerned friends and relatives of a missing teenager, puts everything in a new focus. It is a messy, horrible and deeply saddening story.

And it's that humanity, the horrendous ordeal of the Dowler family, which must be kept in mind at all times when discussing this episode. It is at the heart of why this story matters, and it is at the heart of why this does not become a gleeful witch-hunt.

Instead, let the facts speak for themselves. If readers are outraged by the latest allegations, the easiest course of action they can take is to stop buying the paper. We will have to see whether that happens or not, starting this Sunday.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.