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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.