An elderly media tycoon and the not-so-humble pie

Murdoch's news-loving Spidey-sense still tingles.

So there it was, then. The defining moment of the Hackgate hearings was not a thundering "You can't handle the truth!" from one of the main players but a foamy pie splattering into the face of an elderly media tycoon.

As the faux-custard humiliation oozed down his face, perhaps Rupert Murdoch's news-loving Spidey-sense still tingled: he must have known, despite it all, that this was the only show in town, and his humbling, via a not-so-humble pie, was complete.

It's a messy kind of protest, chucking goo at someone you don't approve of, and quite often rather counterproductive.

Ted Heath got showered with red paint on his first day as Prime Minister in 1970 (remarking "That was a stupid thing to do, wasn't it?"), then splashed with ink outside the Palais d'Egmont in Brussels in 1972.

Peter Mandelson, of course, suffered a green custard sploshing at the hands of an outraged environmentalist in 2009, one of many food-chucking incidents of the New Labour era, which saw John Prescott egged, Nick Brown lunged at with a chocolate éclair and Tony Blair pelted with a tomato. Keep a straight face, please, because it's not funny, but Robert Kilroy-Silk had a bucket of slurry thrown over him.

Maybe there's a special course that politicians can go on where they learn how to maintain their dignity while they have foodstuffs lobbed at them; perhaps it's just a skill that comes with the territory.

There is a certain ability to be able to climb onto the moral high ground with relative certainty when one is enduring a custard onslaught -- though when the icy-cool mask slips, as it did with Prescott's memorable two-punch combo aimed at a protester in Rhyl, it needn't be a disaster either. People didn't mind Prezza going toe-to-toe with a man with an egg-hurling man in double denim; it seemed, in the public's imagination, that under such provocation, all ministerial decorum could be abandoned.

I know, by the way, that I'm talking about the pie, and that by talking about the pie, I detract from "the story", which is about everything other than the pie; by doing so, even with my minuscule readership, I run the risk of, in some small way, encouraging others to take up shaving foam and a cardboard plate when all else fails.

I understand this, but a pie to the face is still a pie to the face; there's no use pretending it didn't happen, when we all saw that it did.

I suppose I should say at this point that it's a demonstration of inarticulacy to pick up an egg, or a custard pie, rather than a keyboard, or a pen: and yes, it does give your target the chance to play the victim and accuse you of being incapable of using words to make your argument.

Mind you, the only way I think Murdoch could have won us over would be if he had secreted a pie of his own into the hearing, and launched it into his attacker's face as a pre-emptive strike. That would have been brilliant, but sadly it was not to be.

The pieing rounds off a truly miserable few days for Daddy Murdoch. His empire might not be collapsing around his ears, but it's not been a golden time either. But he can't let go, and is absorbing a huge amount of limelight since the collapse of the News of the World -- possibly to save his family, possibly because that's just the way he does things. It might even lead one to suspect he's almost rather enjoying the attention.

That grinning promenade with Rebekah Brooks was one thing; the paparazzi photos of his spindly legs in tiny 1980s athletics shorts, dangerously close to an upskirt moment, was another.

Perhaps it's a dirt-eating grin of someone who knows they are on the wrong end of a tanking; perhaps it's a defiance, in the face of all of it, from someone who believes he's more sinned against than sinning; or maybe it's just a smile from someone who knew all along that these days would one day come.

We'll never know, I suspect.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.