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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.