Jaw-dropping anecdotes, Muslim jokes and Murakami’s sexy ear

Regular readers will remember Paul McMullan, the safari-suited defender of the tabloid press who was memorably recorded by Hugh Grant spilling the beans about phone-hacking in an undercover exposé for this magazine. The former News of the World deputy features editor turned the Leveson inquiry into car-crash TV on 29 November, coming up with a series of almost unbelievable anecdotes and quotes. He said that "in a bizarre way, [he] felt slightly proud" that the name-and-shame anti-paedophile campaign caused a riot that led to a paediatrician's house being attacked - and that "privacy is for paedos", anyway. He revealed that he was at journalism college with Michael Gove; that he dressed as "Brad the teenage rent boy" to get a story about a spanking priest; that he used a Hell's Angel as a private investigator; and that phone-hacking was no big deal, because Monica on Friends listened to her ex-boyfriend's answerphone messages.

Casually noting how phone numbers were traded between journalists, he told the judge: "I swapped Sylvester Stallone's mother for David Beckham." Jackie Stallone is an ex-Celebrity Big Brother contestant who claims to be able to read your future in your buttocks. David Beckham is an internationally renowned superstar sportsman. I'd call it the best decision McMullan ever made, if it wasn't for the fact that, when he tried to hack Beckham's answering machine, the footballer foiled his plan by picking up the phone.

The oddest moment, against stiff competition, was when he claimed that the source of the story about Grant's baby was a letter sent to his pub by one of the actor's friends. "I reckoned the tip was so hot, I was going to build a new toilet suite based on this!" he exulted.

The news channels have stopped covering the inquiry with the intensity of the early days, when Grant and Steve Coogan - and the McCanns and the Dowlers - appeared there. That's a shame, because the past few days have been much more revealing. On 28 November, Charlotte Church gave measured, undefensive and damning evidence about the pressures that were heaped on her as a teenager in the public eye, including a tasteful countdown to the date it was legal to have sex with her.

Having only experienced Church as the "voice of an angel" turned "hard-drinking ladette" of the tabloids, I was astonished by the sensible, intelligent woman who appeared in front of the inquiry. Sienna Miller - an actress I'm not sure I've ever seen act but whose love life and outfit choices I could recount to you in detail - was also impressive in acknowledging that what happened to her was distressing but in no way equivalent to the suffering of parents of murdered children.

The inquiry has been a depressing experience, although listening to the Guardian's Nick Davies - the man who exposed the hacking scandal - did give me some hope for my trade.

After hearing all of this, it seems probable that Lord Leveson will conclude that regulation of the press by the PCC has failed. But he is unlikely to be able to address the elephant in the room, although McMullan did towards the end of his extraordinary evidence: "Sometimes, I wouldn't have bought the News of the World even though I worked for it. But the British public did."

Relative values

One of the most common complaints levelled against lefty comedians is that they don't make jokes about really sensitive issues and instead stick to cheap shots about powerless minorities such as Christians and Etonians and the Queen. "It is hard to imagine Jimmy Carr or any of his cohorts making a joke about Muhammad," wrote Jan Moir in the Daily Mail on 25 November.

With pleasing synchronicity, I went to see Stewart Lee's stand-up set the same week, in which he tackles this idea head-on. (Incidentally, the pair have clashed before: Moir accused him of being part of a "cabal of foul-mouthed left-wing comics" in contrast to the blameless Michael McIntyre; Lee called her the Mail's "chief rage-monger".)

In the course of a clever but uneven set, Lee suggests that the real reason why comics like him don't joke about Islam is because they know very little about it and comedy relies on a shared cultural knowledge between performer and audience.
Nonetheless, Lee tries a typically twisting, self-parodying "Muslim joke" nonetheless - in the hope, he says, of a reviewer describing him as an "Islamophobic Michael McIntyre" or "the Sarah Millican of cultural relativism". Which I suppose I have done here. Hope he's pleased.

Rude v prude

Anyone offended by bad language - and even worse prose - look away now. The Literary Review has published the shortlist for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards and there are some absolute stinkers on the list. The venerable Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 offers my favourite passage (sorry, it's impossible to write about these awards without becoming painfully conscious of stray innuendoes in your own writing). Prepare yourself: "A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought. Both appeared to be turned outward, trying to listen closely to something - something like a distant bell." Freshly made?

Still, there's a point to all this sniggering behind the hand, as the Review's senior editor Jonathan Beckman pointed out in the Financial Times: "Prudishness lies at the heart of poor sex writing . . . Good sex writing, by contrast, is clear, precise and unillusioned."

Or, to put it another way, if you can't construct a decent sentence about this fundamental human experience, why should the reader trust you on anything else?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle