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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide