For Murdoch and friends, sorry is the easiest word

For Rupert, Rebekah and David, contrition has finally arrived. But where's the shame?

Rupert Murdoch is very sorry. He's very sorry that he didn't know anything about what went on at his newspapers, which was wrong but not the fault of the people in charge of those newspapers, and he's very sorry that those people who were in charge, but didn't know anything about the wrong things that were happening, have now had to resign.

Rebekah Brooks is sorry. She's sorry that although she was in charge of newspapers for which despicable acts took place, she knew nothing about it, having been on holiday when many of these incidents took place, and not having known about it otherwise. She's sorry that she said that her organisation had paid police, when what she meant to say was that her organisation had not paid police. These things happen, when you're in a high pressure situation. You can end up saying things you didn't mean to say.

David Cameron is sorry. He's sorry that he gave someone a second chance. He's sorry that the second chance, which he gave someone, by giving them a second chance, didn't work out as well as he might have hoped. No-one warned him that by giving this someone a second chance, it might not be the best outcome in the history of the world, although some people say they did warn him, and that he must have either not even read those warnings, or not listened to them, or proceeded anyway.

Everyone's sorry. Everyone is sorry that what happened happened, and that even though they were in the kind of positions where you might expect them to know about what happened, they didn't know about what happened. No-one knew anything, and were quite right to dismiss all the investigative work on the phone hacking story as boring lefty troublemakers doing some yawnworthy tedium, until the tale about the hacking of a dead teenager's phone came out - at which point it actually mattered.

It mattered because the story went beyond the BBC, or the Guardian, or the usual suspects - it went everywhere, and wasn't going to go away. It wasn't just being read about by the kind of people who'd never buy your papers; it was being read about by exactly the kind of people who do buy your papers, and are disgusted with you for having run the kind of paper where this kind of thing happened. Then it mattered a lot.

Then, everyone who is now sorry was as shocked as everyone else. Imagine the shock. The surprise. Imagine not having known about anything, all that time. Imagine employing someone - giving them a second chance, if you want to use that phrase - who was rumoured to be involved in some dodgy dealing, and not having sat them down and forced them to tell you exactly what they knew and didn't know. Imagine that.

Would you feel sorry, or would there be another feeling running through you? Not sorry, but something else... shame. Shame that you should have known, but didn't know. Shame that you didn't ask the right questions of the right people. Shame that you didn't know where any of this information came from, and just paid people for it anyway. Shame that you were in charge, yet weren't in charge. Shame that you took the absolutely enormous salary, yet didn't know what you were doing, apparently.

Everyone's sorry, and everyone involved in this grubby mess hopes that a simple sorry will make everything all right again. Just a simple sorry, and hope that the fuss dies down, and then up pops the Sun on Sunday on August 7, or thereabouts, and it's the football season and there'll be a massive preview and free gifts and other lovely things for you to look at, and everyone will just shrug their shoulders and think, oh well, I suppose we'd better give them a second chance, hadn't we? It's important to give people second chances. And that will be that. Crisis averted. Ed Miliband foiled. Everything carries on, much as it did before.

Unless people aren't prepared to tolerate being fooled again. And unless people aren't prepared to think that a simple sorry will get Murdoch and friends out of this sorry mess.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.