Vince Cable's leaked letter: the reaction

The Business Secretary's harsh criticism of government economic policy hurts because it is true.

In a remarkable leaked letter, the Business Secretary Vince Cable has ripped apart the government's strategy on growth and other key economic policies.

The four page letter (which you can read in full here) was published yesterday by the BBC. Date 8th February and addressed to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the private letter warns that "market forces are insufficient for creating the long term industrial capacities we need" and says there is "no connected approach across government". In a brutally frank assessment, Cable writes:

I sense however that there is still something important missing: a compelling vision of where the country is heading beyond sorting out the fiscal mess; and a clear and confident message abut how we will earn our living in future... We can be more strategic and the economic backdrop will increase demands that we are ambitious.

He makes several suggestions, the most radical of which is that the majority taxpayer owned Royal Bank of Scotland is broken up to create a "British Business Bank with a clean balance sheet and a mandate to expand lending rapidly to sound business".

But, predictably, it is not Cable's suggestions which have drawn the most attention, but his tough criticism of the way his own government -- and in places, his own department -- have handled the economy. This lays bare tensions in the coalition, at a particularly crucial time as the Budget draws near.

There was some irritation in the Treasury at the timing of the leak, as tense negotiations over the Budget continue. Downing Street and the Deputy Prime Minister's office both downplayed the importance of Cable's intervention, but a range of Conservative MPs - amongst whom the Business Secretary is already unpopular - expressed their annoyance.

Brian Binley, a Tory member of the Business Select Committee, summed up the feelings of many, telling the Times (£):

I am bitterly disappointed that the man put in charge of the growth agenda feels there is a problem with the agenda.

I find him a pleasant person to deal with. But if he is disappointed by the lack of growth, he is in as good a place as anybody in the Commons to make that clear. If he is struggling to do that, perhaps he should step aside and allow someone else to have a go."

Commentators across the political spectrum have been quick to notice that Cable's suggestions -- interventionism, patriotism, and supporting winners -- closely echo Labour's line. Yesterday, Ed Miliband gave a speech on "industrial activism". My colleague George Eaton noted the concordance between the views touted publically by Miliband and Cable yesterday.

This letter will strike a nerve with Tory top command precisely because it is close to the bone. The charge they are most sensitive to is that they have failed to articulate a strategy for growth, or indeed any economic strategy beyond deficit reduction. It is more damaging because it comes from within the government, even if it is from Cable, Liberal Democrat and eternal discontent. Yet, on the other hand, many Conservative commentators are raising the question: as Business Secretary, isn't Cable at least partly responsible for creating this situation? The shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has been fast to say that the letter shows that "David Cameron and George Osborne have become roadblocks to the modernisation and reform needed to create a more productive economy."

The blame game will continue in Westminster, but outside it is largely irrelevant. What matters is that these criticisms sting because they are founded in fact, and the government does not have any decisive answers.

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

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.