Is the BBC’s Today programme scared of Rupert Murdoch?

Curious silence over Hugh Grant’s scoop.

Even Roy Greenslade, in a rather sour Guardian piece, grudgingly conceded that Hugh Grant's hilarious entrapment of the former News of the World executive Paul McMullan was a decent story, at the same time offering the startling observation that online was now more influential than print (Roy, surely not!).

Grant's report for our issue of 11 April has become a global media sensation, as Greenslade knows. The traffic from all over the world has been so great that on several occasions our website has crashed. Last night, ITV's News at 10 broadcast extracts from Hugh's secretly recorded conversation with McMullan at his pub in Dover.

To its credit, Sky News also wanted to broadcast extracts, having contacted us about the article on several occasions. However, the BBC has been curiously silent, and has made no attempt to report what most other media outlets and most of the Twittersphere – oh yes, Hugh Grant has been trending – have conceded to be a significant story.

When Jemima Khan and I were discussing her guest edit of the New Statesman we agreed that she would do only two interviews to promote it, one print (the London Evening Standard) and one broadcast. BBC2's Newsnight wanted to have her on the programme to talk about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. That didn't interest us. I thought the Today programme, with its six million listeners, would be preferable.

I spoke to a contact at Today and, in confidence, told him about the Hugh Grant story and its implications. He was very interested and said that his night editor – this was on the evening of Wednesday 6 April, just ahead of publication of the magazine – would call me back to discuss having Jemima on the programme the following morning to talk about Hugh, phone-tapping and the News of the World. (In his report Hugh revealed for the first time that he had been hacked by the News of the World, not an uninteresting revelation, and one that Jemima, his former girlfriend, was happy to discuss candidly in her only broadcast media interview.)

In the event, the night editor did not call me back, not even by way of courtesy. Our conclusion is that the Today programme either has no sense of a story or, more likely, someone there was alarmed at the prospect of covering Grant's adventure as an undercover reporter and some of the more powerful allegations made by McMullan, who seems like a first-rate huckster.

Something similar happened when my colleague Helen Lewis-Hasteley spoke to Radio 5's Drive programme this week to discuss appearing on the show, as she sometimes does. "Would you like me to talk about Hugh Grant?" she asked. There was a chorus of "Nos" from the producers. Similarly, she spent 20 minutes talking to BBC Radio Kent on Friday 8 March, in a spiky interview covering the ethics of covert recordings and whether the New Statesman was "buying into celebrity culture". It was not broadcast.

"I can understand some of the frustration the Guardian must feel about this story," says Helen. "To give them their credit, they have been plugging away at this issue for months – while many other commentators said there was 'nothing to see here' – and have been studiously ignored for their trouble. Even now there have been further arrests, and News International has apologised and offered payouts to several victims, the extent of the media silence is astonishing."

What is going on? What is it about this story that makes the BBC so anxious? Could it be that independent BBC editors are operating a form of self-censorship because they fear ... what, exactly? What is that our licence-fee-funded, "impartial", public-service broadcaster fears about the Murdoch family and its tentacular grip on power in Britain? Or has an edict come down from on high? We should be told.

Update: The BBC have been in touch to say that the interview with Helen was in fact broadcast - elsewhere in the programme.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.