No turning back

The <em>News of the World</em> phone hacking scandal is growing by the minute, and threatens to chan

Each hour brings new revelations. More victims of phonehacking are being identified -- not just celebrities, or politicians, whose discomfort we have tolerated in the past, but real people, ordinary people like us, whose private moments of anxiety, grief and despair have been listened in on, and used to fuel tabloid tales.

Ever since allegations broke that an investigator working for the News of the World had hacked the phone of a missing teenager, and deleted messages, this story has taken on a new life. A Facebook group calling for a boycott of the News of the World has thousands of members. More significantly, advertisers, who have been bombarded with complaints from their customers, are deciding to withdraw their brands from the toxic environment of the News of the World -- for now at least. This is no longer a trifling matter of ethics only of interest to the London media bubble or the pitchfork-wielding Twitchunters; this is the only story in town, and it has angered more than just dripping-wet liberal Guardian readers. The shock and dismay reaches out much further.

You wouldn't know that from reading the Sun, though. They have covered the unfolding drama at their parent company News International, and their sister paper the News of the World, as if it were happening in another world -- a minor scuffle, but nothing to see here: please distract yourself with these other stories, rather than reading these few lines about our troubles. Apparently, it's business as usual.

Except it isn't. Newspaper readers aren't mugs; Sun and News of the World readers aren't mugs. It's wrong to think of them as a tide of dumb morons who don't understand the gravity of what's going on; a bunch of dribbling zombies who will happily skip down to the newsagents on Sunday and buy their favourite paper regardless of its alleged misdemeanours. It might be easier for us to see the world in those terms, but I tend to have a bit more faith in newspaper readers -- including News of the World readers -- than that.

The Sun might not be giving the phonehacking drama the attention that its newsworthiness deserves, but that doesn't matter: punters will be hearing the story on the radio, seeing it on television, reading about it on the net and seeing it covered elsewhere. The Sun's own website has carried discussions about the phonehacking fiasco today on its forums -- though some threads appear to have mysteriously disappeared.

Calls for a boycott of this Sunday's News of the World -- and wider calls for a boycott of News Corporation products -- are increasing. This is not just a few silly vexatious lefties on Twitter getting in a tizzy, as these things are usually depicted; this is much wider than that. Corporations who didn't worry about seeing their products placed in the country's most popular newspaper when the first phonehacking revelations came out are now thinking again. This is a big deal.

Perhaps News International hopes it can ride out the story; perhaps it genuinely doesn't understand the storm that has been created; or maybe a sacrificial figure is being prepared, someone to blame so the so-called mob can be satisfied and everything can carry on just as it always was.

So where we go from here? We don't trust the papers to police themselves. We don't trust the Press Complaints Commission to police the papers. We don't trust politicians to police the papers. Left with no-one to rely on but themselves, the campaigners have targeted advertisers -- and the efforts are paying off, in the short term at least. But what happens next will go some way to deciding how the media go about their business in this country.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle