Ed Miliband might have read too much into phone-hacking

The Labour leader's stance against the Murdochs was a turning point of sorts, but it didn't change t

Earlier this year, when the phone-hacking scandal was monopolising the news, quite a few MPs seemed baffled - not by the anger itself (no one could doubt that appalling behaviour had been exposed at the News of the World), but by the apparent scale and momentum of events. Plainly it was a huge news story and journalists like few things more than writing collectively about themselves. But the question being asked inside the Westminster village was "how big could this get?" There were some stunning personnel changes. The Met top brass resigned; a mass-circulation Sunday newspaper closed its doors. But when the dust had settled, how different would the landscape really look?

MPs weren't hearing about hacking from their constituents. The two issues most often raised on the doorstep and in surgeries continued to be the economy and immigration. That made a marked contrast with expenses scandal, which ate the political agenda much as hacking did but which also turned into a huge issue for individual MPs on their home turf. People still talk about it. Pollsters say it is one of the few things that those voters who are generally uninterested in politics can recall about Westminster goings on. That is not the case with hacking. For parliament and the media and the Murdoch family, it is big news. For everyone else, it is part of a background blur of shabbiness and name-calling - the relentless and inchoate hum that tells people politicians and journalists are generally scummy, but not much else.

One senior shadow cabinet minister I spoke to at the time expressed it in interesting terms, I think, when he considered the possibility that it was a "Diana moment - where everything seems to change and in fact nothing changes." There was a short burst of hysteria - a particular national mood - and then it dispersed. The monarchy changed a bit; the paparazzi didn't change at all. Business continued mostly as usual.

James Murdoch's appearance before a parliamentary committee today was important, revealing and necessary. But it is not a national event. It doesn't stoke up wider feelings of anger and rage about hacking. There was a fire there once, but it has gone out.

This is something to which Labour and Ed Miliband should be paying careful attention. The phone-hacking scandal was his moment. He made a difficult and brave judgement call - took a risk - and got it right. It was a turning point in his leadership. But Miliband and his team read more into it than that. They tend to interpret the success over phone-hacking as a sign that there are untapped reserves of political capital available for the candidate who takes on powerful vested interests and wins. If Labour could reverse the orthodoxy that said you have suck up to the Murdoch empire, what other orthodoxies of recent political memory might be ripe for reversal? It was an episode that emboldened Miliband and encouraged him to develop more broadly the language of "vested interests" and"ripping up the rule book" and "predatory capitalism" as expressed in his party conference speech and in last week's article in the Observer praising the St Paul's protest.

I don't doubt that this is an intriguing line of thinking and that it might prove fertile political terrain for the leader of the opposition. Maybe it is, as Labour must hope, the kernel of a winning strategy. And I know, of course, that it is premised on more than just the buzz that came from banging in some political goals during the phone-hacking saga. But that was certainly part of it and it is instructive how unmoved most people (outside Labour circles and the Guardian) really are by the issue. Maybe they should care more. The accrual of power and its abuse in the Murdoch empire -not to mention allegations of criminal behaviour - are serious matters. But I'm not persuaded that many voters are ready to read across from that to anything like the conclusions that the Labour leadership has drawn.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.