"The Daily Malicious, sorry, the Daily Mail"

Naivety and aggression at the Leveson inquiry.

"The Daily Malicious, sorry, the Daily Mail." You knew from the moment that faux-slip passed his lips that this wouldn't be a run-of-the-mill appearance at the Leveson inquiry by Richard Desmond, owner-founder of Northern and Shell, owner of Channel 5 and proprietor of the Daily Express, Sunday Express, OK! Magazine, Daily Star and Daily Star on Sunday. And arch-rival of the Daily Mail.

There was plenty of knockabout stuff to entertain. "The Daily Mail is Britain's worst enemy," snipped Desmond, given the chance to talk about his 'worst enemy'. When asked of the notion of a non-aggression pact between the Mail and the Express, he retorted: "Two weeks ago Dacre vilified me in his horrible rag."

The mention of Paul Dacre, Daily Mail editor, clearly stuck in Robert Jay QC's mind, and he accidentally called Desmond "Mr Dacre" to howls of laughter shortly afterwards. "He's the fat butcher," chuckled Desmond. There didn't seem an awful lot of love lost.

The Express owner, like fellow Leveson attendee Paul McMullen, is a pen-twiddler. He spoke calmly and slightly boringly - not as boringly as Mail on Sunday editor Peter Wright, whose statements the other day were in the bland monotones of a hynoptherapy tape. But there was a clenched fist and a sense more animation when he became passionate about his business: "You have to love these products, you have to live these products."

He explained how he made cutbacks in staff when he arrived - "There's more to life than the chess correspondent based in Latin America" - as well as 'a very secretive reporting area'.

"We cut it out within a week or two weeks. If we didn't know what they did, we got rid of them." Was that for ethical or commercial considerations, he was asked? "We do not pay out cash without receipts. That was the ethos of the company."

Shortly afterwards, he was a little less sure of the meaning of those words: "Ethical, I don't know what the word means." Jay pointed out his own statement, where he had spoken of how 'everybody's ethics are different, we don't talk about ethics or morals'. Ah yes, that ethical.

Desmond made it clear he was a proprietor whose background was in advertising, not editorial: "With respect to journalists, (putting money on the front cover or giving away DVDs) is the only way you increase circulation." Later, he added: "Editors have to believe that by putting a good story in they're going to sell more newspapers. That doesn't necessarily correlate."

He also recalled the way in which he was greeted by his former Fleet Street rivals: "The Mail were the worst because they were upset they hadn't bought the Daily Express. The Mail were upset, the Telegraph were upset because they had this joint venture with a printing company. The Guardian were upset because we came from leftfield and nobody knew who we were. We were cutting their friends' jobs so they didn't like us. The Sunday Times, they wrote lovely things about us. The Independent, the Mirror and the Sun, I can't remember."

Desmond clearly felt he had on the wrong end of a character assassination, saying: "The only thing I wasn't accused of was murder."

Before too long, the conversation turned to Kate and Gerry McCann, who actually were accused of murder, in his newspaper, which reported the suspicions of Portuguese police with regard to the parents of missing Madeleine. Jay said: "In relation to McCanns, if one accepts other newspapers also defamed the McCanns, given the systematic and egregious defamations which your newspaper perpetrated on the McCanns it's a bit rich to blame the PCC to fail to provide you with guidance, after all it was up to your editor not to behave in such a way."

Desmond replied: "Every paper, every day for that period of time was talking about the McCanns. It was the story. Poor old Peter Hill, he thought I was going to fire him. He'd done to the best of his ability report the facts. Unfortunately when it came to it, it's fair to assume the Portuguese police would have been a reliable source."

It was interesting how Desmond's sympathies appeared to be with 'poor old Peter Hill' as the victim in that scenario.

Later, Desmond unwisely returned to the subject when talking about the role of the PCC. "With the McCanns, it took them a long time to get in a dispute with us. They were quite happy as I understand in articles being run about their poor daughter. It was only when new lawyers came along who were working on contingency..."

"That was grotesque characterisation," interjected Leveson. "Your newspaper had accused them of killing their daughter. Are you seriously saying they were 'quite happy'?"

Desmond apologised to the McCanns. He kept apologising to the McCanns, and made it clear that he was apologising to the McCanns, but couldn't leave the subject alone. He said the Express had been unfairly scapegoated over its coverage, even though 'everyone else' was doing it, saying that if there were 38 bad articles out of a total of 102, that meant there were a majority of positive articles.

With regards to the PCC, Desmond seemed flippant. His main gag was that it should be called the "RCD" (Richard Clive Desmond), though that joke fell a little flat after the tense exchanges over the McCanns. He seemed unwilling to want to talk about regulation, as if it were falling into some trap - the bad jokes were as good as it was going to get.

Earlier, Dawn Neesom, the editor of the Daily Star, had seemed similarly awkward when pressed on restructuring the PCC and regulation of the press, chuckling a rather bizarre comment to Leveson himself. "You're far more intelligent than I am so I know you're going to come up with something very good," she said. It seemed rather too deferent and cap-doffing for someone in such a high-ranking position, particularly with regards to self-regulation, where newspapers usually seem so keen to be involved.

But then if you take a lot of witnesses at their word, there is a lot of that kind of naivety about. People who have risen to the top positions in the highly competitive and cynical world of journalism do appear, at face value, to have an awfully kindly and trusting nature, and seem to like to see the best in others.

Hugh Whittow, editor of the Express, explained that he was aware that the newspaper had used search agencies, but not private investigators - a similar distinction to the evidence from Sun editor Dominic Mohan the other day. How was he sure that it wasn't going on? He said it hadn't been 'flagged up' to him. How did he know that sources weren't being paid? "I assume because no-one has come to me it hasn't happened."

You have to marvel at how a tabloid journalist could be such a trusting soul.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics