The manliness of fracking, bad intelligence, and English Test cricket’s selection problem

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Do you care that David Miranda, the partner of an investigative journalist, was held and questioned for nearly nine hours at Heathrow? Enough to take to the streets about it? Or contact your MP? Miranda lives with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who revealed the extent of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance, thanks to the whistleblower Edward Snowden. You are not an investigative journalist, nor do you live with one. Even if you did, you probably wouldn’t be ferrying materials, as Miranda was, between your partner and a film-maker. Do you, come to that, really care that some geeks in a windowless room in Maryland can read your emails? After all, they contain nothing of the smallest interest to the security authorities.
 
As ministers repeat ad nauseam, you need fear nothing if you aren’t doing anything wrong. On the other hand, you have much to fear from terrorist attacks, though I am not aware of any calculations of the respective risks of being detained as a suspect and of being around when a bomb goes off. Even if you unluckily suffer the former, you probably won’t be killed or maimed – though if you are Brazilian, like Miranda and Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on the London Underground in 2005, it seems you risk particularly rough treatment.
 
So, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Support the authorities in their exhaustive attempts to keep you safe, even if they sometimes go too far. Remember, however, what the chairman of a long-forgotten inquiry into intelligence agency abuses, Senator Frank Church (quoted in the current New York Review of Books), said in 1975 when the agencies’ powers were a fraction of what they are now: “If a dictator ever took charge . . . there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know . . . That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
 
One of the boys
 
I try to get my head around the pros and cons of fracking. Like many current issues, it strikes me as highly technical, requiring PhDs in physics, chemistry, geology and economics to get a full grasp of the subject. It certainly sounds nasty, because it involves drilling, splitting rocks and injecting water (which I had understood to be in short supply) underground.
 
I don’t want to be a knee-jerk lefty and, now that the Guardian’s George Monbiot has explained that support for fracking marks you out as “one of the boys”, I shall keep my counsel for fear of being thought effeminate. Yet one thing puzzles me. Why are the people outraged by protesters who oppose fracking because it (allegedly) ruins the countryside also outraged by the spread of wind turbines because they (allegedly) ruin the countryside? As Adam Smith nearly said, there’s a lot of ruin in the countryside.
 
Citizens’ advice
 
Browsing the internet, I stumbled across the website of Democracy 2015, a movement set up last year by Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the Independent. Launched with fanfare in that paper, it invited “likeminded citizens” from “demanding careers” to contest every constituency at the next election in the expectation of forming a one-term government to set the country to rights. Now Whittam Smith reports: “Our first public meetings were not as successful as we expected . . . A period of careful reflection is necessary.” In the Corby by-election last November, Democracy 2015 received 35 votes, 64 fewer than the Church of the Militant Elvis.
 
Whittam Smith may be better advised to find people who have pursued undemanding careers in the constituencies they seek to represent. They would be MPs for just one term, with no ambitions except to serve their constituents, scrutinise government actions, vote for legislation only if convinced of its merits and decline freebies or consultancies. Such a group could get 50 seats and transform parliament.
 
Full Monty
 
The spin bowler Monty Panesar has been left out of England’s latest Test squad because he pissed on nightclub bouncers. Perhaps, as recommended by Sir Michael Parkinson, he was testing himself for prostate cancer. How the incident affects his ability to spin a cricket ball isn’t explained. Nor is the failure of Panesar and other talented non-white cricketers – Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad – to establish themselves in the England team, often for reasons only partly to do with on-field performance.
 
I do not accuse selectors and coaches of racism but some inquiry into this persistent underachievement is surely necessary.
 
In vino veritas
 
Each day, I take five tablets: three in the morning, two at night. I have no idea what they’re for. It’s just that, from time to time, my doctor summons me for “tests”, says I have “failed” and prescribes more tablets. Now, some Danish scientists say that all this screening and medication of senior folk may do more harm than good.
 
It’s probably best to hedge your bets. The latest tests, which involve answering an interminable government questionnaire about “lifestyle”, rule that, being “moderately inactive”, I must drink less wine and take more vigorous exercise.
 
I think I’ll give that a miss. 
Lawyer Gwendolen Morgan, acting for David Miranda, emerges from the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories