"Who will bully the bullies?"

In a disturbing account of an angry incident in London, Boris Johnson's old friend fights back against his detractors in the press.

The Spectator recently published an article in which I argued that the BBC journalist Eddie Mair, as a member of the British media, was in no position to point his finger at my old friend Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and call him “a nasty piece of work”. While many understood the point, the reaction on the part of a press which has taken umbrage at my consistent refusal to recognise a moral authority that I do not accept it possesses was less favourable.

One journalist in particular took it upon himself to resort to insult. He had approached me by email with a list of questions that seemed serious enough but which I sensed could be bait to occasion a meeting and thereby instil credibility to a subsequent character assassination, a favourite ploy of British journalists. I declined his invitation in the politest terms and with tedious predictability an article about me soon appeared in a prominent newspaper, its bad faith outmatched only by its incompetence.

In particular, it was the journalist’s insulting of my wife which proved that he had not conducted even an iota’s actual study. Had he done so, he would have realised that his calumny would trigger only one response.

That response came early one recent morning when, having discovered his address and flown into London from South Africa where I live, I waited for him to emerge from his house, chased him, and then, having knocked him to the ground, emptied over his head a sack of horse manure rendered slurry by the addition of bottled water – a concoction made possible courtesy of Hyde Park Riding School and the springs of Evian. The aim had been not to hurt him but to humiliate him as he had sought to humiliate my wife. And humiliate him is exactly what I did, in front of his neighbours who had poured out on to the street at the sound of his screams.

A click of the mouse is all that separates the journalist’s embarrassment from worldwide dissemination because I had brought along two accomplices, who did not touch him, and whose role it was to film the events as they unfolded. But here is the difference. That click of the mouse did not occur – precisely because I saw no point in causing additional hurt to the journalist’s family.

Did such considerations inform the News of the World when it published its video of Max Mosley’s recreation with a group of ladies liberal with their affections? Did the News of the World ask itself: “How will this impact on Mr Mosley’s family? What pos - sible good will come of publishing these tapes? Will society become a better place as a consequence? Or will it become a darker one by pandering to the basest voyeuristic instincts in us all?”

Did it, or any of Britain’s other newspapers, wrestle with similar questions on countless equivalent occasions?

Instead, the News of the World invoked a “public interest” defence – Fleet Street’s favourite – the gist being that the wearing of supposedly Nazi-like apparel had justified Mr Mosley’s exposure, an argument dismissed as patent sophistry by Mr Justice Eady in a high court judgment that is a masterpiece of prose and reasoning.

And when the wife of the journalist at the centre of this story emerged from her home to see me standing over her husband warning him never to repeat his mistake, did I bring her into it? Did I pour manure over her and attempt to humiliate her as her spouse had done my wife? No.

The sad truth is that, bar the odd exception, the most ruthless armed robbers I met in jail had more honour and more sense of code than the British media.

In fact, the real reason for some editors’ desire to degrade is money, coupled with a psychological need to bring the rest of the population down to their own level. The response by the publicity-sensitive Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, to Justice Eady’s judgment could hardly be more revealing:

. . . if mass-circulation newspapers . . . don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations . . . If the News of the World can’t carry such stories as the Mosley orgy, then it, and its political reportage and analysis [sic], will eventually probably die.

It is an argument that could be relied upon by the drug dealer: “I only give the people what they want. Were there no demand for my product, there’d be no market. I’m just a disciple of Adam Smith.”

However, for me, the person who spreads the disease is in fact far more blameworthy than the one in whom the disease originates. And that is exactly how the media make money – just as Mr Dacre states – not by upholding “democracy”, but by spreading sickness: an orgy here, a topless celebrity there, a beheading of a soldier somewhere else; all for our simple, pay-per-view, pay-as-youread entertainment.

Britain is a vulgar and aggressive country. Step off the plane and it hits you in the face. Now travel back in time, perhaps only 50 years, to a pre-Murdochian age. Watch some television or listen to the radio or open a newspaper and compare. How sad. The truth is that the media know all of this yet bemoan Britain’s moral decline, blind to just how implicated they are in that decline.

Lord Leveson asked the question: “Who guards the guardians?”

I beg your pardon? Murdoch, Dacre, Lebedev, Desmond et al – “guardians”?!

That surely is a term which implies leadership of some kind: a sense of moral authority and of trust; a notion of lifting the people, not degrading them.

The better question, it seems to me, would have been: “Who will bully the bullies?”

Leveson also quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

But there are huge assumptions here – the first being that the media are indeed “free”. They are not. The British press is controlled by a handful of corporations in turn owned by a handful of rather unpleasant individuals, all with virtually identical agendas. The result is that consent is not reached through rational dialogue between the media and their audience, but instead is manufactured. One comes across very little that is genuinely novel or enlightening in Britain’s media; the newspapers and television stations all essentially accept the same liberal, free-market line. The resulting uniformity is herd-like and dangerous, and the consequence is that we no longer have an intelligentsia to speak of. Whereas in countries such as France, where privacy laws are stronger, debate is in fact, counter-intuitively, far broader: from Marxist analysis to Marine Le Pen – a real difference; from the Guardian to the Telegraph– no real difference.

But what about instances such as the uncovering of the phone-hacking scandal? Surely a clear example of why our media should remain unfettered?

In fact, as anyone who had even the remotest knowledge of the workings of the British press could have told you decades before the arrest of the News of the World’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman, newspapers in this country – and not just those belonging to News International – were involved in all manner of illegal trespass on people’s privacy, by no means limited to phone-hacking, and enjoyed corrupt relationships with the police. Why should it be that the establishment wakes up only when the victims of such trespass are the royal family?

The truth is that the British media are seldom ahead of the curve instead of behind it. An example: the press’s catastrophic failure even to hint at impending financial meltdown. Or how about its analysis of Islam and politics in the Middle East? Embarrassing. The second, implied assumption in Jefferson’s remark is that the media must be free to tell the truth. If we reach the point when the man on the street, while being entertained by what he reads or watches, believes not a word of it, then what is the point of a “free” press?

And the third assumption is that the average man will, upon receipt of truthful information, exercise his reason to arrive at rational decisions, in the process becoming a valuable contributor to a free society. It is here that Leveson’s reference to “guardians” has meaning – because the media as prime purveyors of information have an educative function: to lead people out of the darkness and into the light.

Our politicians are complicit in what has been a long process of decadence, claiming that they defend a “free” press because of its emancipatory power, while in truth they care only for its manipulative power, believing in their Diana-like delusion that they can manipulate the journalists to their own ends more than the journalists will manipulate them.

For those of us with a less bleak view of humanity, let us hope that once the cycle’s nadir is reached things will improve, and that a space will open up for a media that we can trust again. What form this eventuality might take I can only guess at but this I know: the least of its priorities will be profit. Perhaps, reminiscent of the 18th-century-type merchant who, his fortune made, rejects the Harvard Business School manual and puts his money into unprofitable land for honour rather than the bottom line, we will rediscover individuals ready to lose their shirt for love of their trade.

Cynicism yielding once more to ideals? I see Messrs Murdoch and Dacre entertained by my naivety and doubtless the usual barbs will follow from underlings who resent those who are not frightened of them. In the meantime, I will hope to bump into such people when they are separated from their laptops and cappuccinos.

The dogs bark but the caravan moves on and the reader will be heartened by confirmation that, unlike prime ministers and other timid souls, this particular caravan will never be deflected from its course by a few mongrels yapping in Wapping.

Darius Guppy is an Anglo-Iranian businessman and essayist and lives in Cape Town, South Africa

Darius Guppy. Image: Dan Murrell

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.