It's not all about Sienna

The missing witnesses at the Leveson inquiry are you and me.

Are tabloid readers just as responsible for the bad behaviour of the press as the hacks and paps? It's a question I've been asking myself over and over while the Leveson inquiry (or to give it its full name, the "Leveson inquiry into the culture and practices and ethics of the press") has been going on.

In a rather poignant reflection of the celebrity culture that fuelled this miserable business in the first place, the appearances of "big names" at Leveson have drawn bigger headlines and longer articles than those of more ordinary, more boring, less photogenic folk. Today's appearance by Sienna Miller will doubtless give the chance for trouser-rubbing picture editors to pore over her features once again. And so it was the case yesterday when Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing child Madeleine, came to give evidence.

The couple spoke of how their privacy was invaded, how their shocked world was intruded upon by photographers and reporters alike, how private diaries were printed without their permission, and how they had to read rumours from police lines of inquiry presented as if they were legitimate versions of the truth. Anyone who has the merest sliver of empathy can only recoil in horror at how the parents of a missing child could feel under those circumstances.

But the hacks and paps didn't descend on Praia de Luz because they were out to get Kate and Gerry -- their privacy was just collateral damage. What they really wanted to do was flog papers -- and this was a story that had produced a reading frenzy, even bumping the Daily Express's traditional sales banker of Diana off the front page. Is it the fault of a profit-making enterprise to want to maximise sales at a time of decline? Or should those who hungrily sucked up the photos and stories of the McCanns bear some responsibility, too?

Nobody knows what sells papers; it's still a bit of a mystery even as the newspaper industry heads towards terminal decline. We can all guess and speculate. You can ask readers, but you will always have to bear in mind that people like to sound more ethical than they really are - who's going to fess up to feasting on trashy celebrity sleaze and intrusion into famous people's private lives, even in an anonymous survey?

But the heat and light generated by certain subjects and certain stories is easier to see now, thanks to the web, where our interests can be easier to see than what we'd admit to reading in a paper. That's why huge chunks of the Daily Mail's website, for example, are devoted to American minor celebrities you've never even heard of wearing bikinis; that's what guarantees traffic.

And that's why there was such a clamour for McCann stories back when the little girl went missing, and why stories about the mystery continue to be popular today. We want to read them, so the search for new angles continues; in that battle for fresh meat, it's not a massive surprise that some journalists will cross the line to get what they want. They do it because we want them to.

Additionally, it was a case that took place in Portugal, so newspapers were left unrestrained by those annoying obstacles of trying not to prejudice criminal proceedings and could say what they wanted while Robert Murat -arrested because the pack of hacks swarming around Praia de Luz decided he was a bit weird - and the McCanns were treated as suspects. It was a chilling glimpse into what would happen without reporting restrictions, a look into a world where journalists could simply write about ongoing cases without thinking of the consequences.

So while Leveson carries on, hearing from victims of phone hacking and journalistic wrongdoing, there's something missing. The other people responsible for this behaviour are getting away completely free of blame, without being scrutinised or having their actions looked at. The other perpetrators are us -- those who bought the newspapers in the first place. You or I might haughtily contend that we are above such things and we don't buy such garbage, but are we really not part of the problem? Do we really not contribute to a culture in which celebrity is seen as the peak of achievement, in which the lines between public and private are being erased all the time?

It would take a long time for Leveson to hear from the millions of people who bought papers because they wanted to read about Celebrity A's lovelife, or the misery of Family B as they were immersed in grief. But we can't pretend they don't exist. Or that we're not part of the problem.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.