Editor Rod Liddle?

What the blogosphere makes of the prospect of Rod Liddle editing the Indie

It might be a return to the editorial big time for the columnist and controversialist Rod Liddle, if the papers are to be believed. Media Guardian reported on Friday that:

The Sunday Times and Spectator columnist is understood to be the favoured candidate [for the editorship of the Independent] of the Russian businessman and London Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev if he succeeds in buying the paper in the next few weeks.

There are lots of "ifs" involved, obviously -- Lebedev has yet to buy the beleaguered titles, and there's the small matter of the existing editor, Roger Alton.

But when has uncertainty ever stopped a good bit of debate, speculation and outrage?

A Facebook group, called "If Rod Liddle becomes editor of the Independent, I will not buy it again", already has 878 members at the time of posting, so I think it's safe to say it's not a hugely popular prospect among Indie readers.

Alex Higgins, who set up the group, writes:

Rod Liddle would be a disappointing choice for the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail. For the Independent, it represents a direct affront to the readership . . .

. . . Independent readers deserve some respect -- the appointment of Rod Liddle is a clear act of contempt. If we wanted to read aggressive, bigoted, sarcastic ignorance, we would buy the Daily Express.

In particular, he takes issue with Liddle's past comments on women (who could forget the Harriet Harman "would you?" incident?) and race (he defended himself on this count on our blog). Higgins also makes the valid point that a defining feature of the Independent is its extensive coverage of global warming and other environmental issues -- sometimes, in the past, in defiance of the mainstream news agenda. Liddle has denied the evidence for the anthropogenic global warming theory.

It's probably fair to point out that, as editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Liddle increased the show's audience to roughly seven million and took criticism in his stride as part of the job. This is fortunate, as the signs are that those at the Indie are no happier than the Facebook vigilantes about the possibility of his rule. The Guardian report points out that the Independent on Sunday called Weekend, Liddle's short-lived political programme for the BBC, "the worst programme anywhere, ever, in the history of time".

Sunder Katwala points out that Liddle courts controversy in the eyes of the public, but even apart from staff opinion is the problem posed by his lack of experience in the newspaper world.

Guido Fawkes also weighs into the debate. He, too, opposes the idea, but (predictably) is not aligned with the Indie's core readership. Instead, he says, Lebedev should appoint Matthew d'Ancona and

. . . move the Indie from the Guardian-dominated liberal-left space to the market opportunity on the liberal right.

I'm not so sure about this -- that would leave just the Guardian representing centre-left opinion in the mainstream press, and it's important to maintain a balance. It does prompt the question, though: Is anyone in favour of Rod Liddle being editor? Are you listening, Mr Lebedev? What's going on in there?

In the proliferation of tweets on the matter, I haven't yet seen a single positive one, although this caught my eye: "On the plus side, he might have less time to churn out tedious and reactionary articles."

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.