Kelvin’s honest amorality, Mitt’s weird faith and Toby’s school rules

Peter Wilby offers a guide to interpreting the red tops, worries about Mitt Romney, is alarmed about

When the former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie ran L!ve TV and I edited the Independent on Sunday, both then controlled by the Mirror Group, we shared a works canteen where, on three consecutive weeks, he approached me, carrying a tray of egg and chips, sticky toffee pudding and the like, to praise the brilliance of one of my columnists. The next three weeks, he approached again, advising that she had "gone off" and ought to be sacked. In the seventh week, under cross-questioning, he admitted that he didn't know what he was talking about and had been muddling two different columnists.

This rather cavalier attitude to facts and judgements was evident in his entertaining session at the Leveson inquiry, in which he explained that, if a story "sounded right", he would "lob it in". Against the self-serving testimony of most tabloid editors and journalists - who wish us to believe that they study the Press Complaints Commission ethics code as parsons study the Bible - MacKenzie's honest amorality was refreshing. Did he have "regard to issues such as privacy"? "Not really, no." Facts? Well, he pointed out, the law often got them wrong, as miscarriages of justice showed, so why expect journalists to get them right?

The high point was when MacKenzie stated that, if a reporter hacked Tony Blair's phone to reveal a political scandal, he would get six months' jail if the story were published in the Sun, a Pulitzer Prize if it were in the Guardian. Confronted with this textbook example of how tabloid journalism works - start with a false premise and then draw a preposterously inflated conclusion from it - Lord Justice Leveson asked if he really meant it. "I sort of three-quarters mean that," MacKenzie replied. Which is a useful guide to interpreting red-top stories. They are usually three-quarters true. The difficulty is to know which three-quarters.

Latter-day moralists

The strangest thing about the race for the Republican nomination is that the supposedly "moderate" candidate holds the weirdest views. Mitt Romney may look and sound normal, and even dull, but he is a Mormon who says that his religion has shaped his life and career.

The Mormon God lives on a planet near the star Kolob, which provides the sun's light. He was once a human being of flesh and blood and you, too, can become a god, ruling your own planet, provided you enter the faith and lead a sufficiently virtuous life, wearing sacred underwear and eschewing abortion, gay marriage, alcohol, tobacco and coffee. Mormonism thus provides a sort of celestial extension to the American "log cabin to White House" myth.

Mormons also extend opportunity to the dead by compiling in Utah an enormous archive of the deceased and carrying out retrospective baptisms. Until recently, in what the late Christopher Hitchens called "a crass act of mass identity theft", those "prayed in" to the Mormon Church in this way included Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

You may object that any religion can be mocked if its doctrines are taken literally and that the Mormons' beliefs are no dafter than those of any common or garden Christian who runs for US president. But we get into a terrible fret about the prospect of Islamists winning Middle East elections. Why do we not worry more about the religious faiths of American presidential candidates? After all, they will be the ones with their hands on the nukes.

Train of thought

I couldn't make up my mind about the high-speed rail link, otherwise known as HS2, which sounds vaguely similar to H2O and possibly, therefore, like water, essential to life. Then I read a headline in the Financial Times: "Link must be built, economists say". All doubts are resolved. The line should definitely not go ahead.

Economics lesson

Behind Michael Gove's rant against "ideologues . . . who put doctrine ahead of pupils' interests" by opposing his academies programme lies the agenda that has driven every education secretary for the past 30 years: wresting schools away from local authorities and putting them in the hands of private companies under Whitehall supervision.

The Tories present their policies to create state-financed academies and free schools as the "big society" in action. They are nothing
of the sort. The most forensic analysis comes, improbably, from Toby Young, founder of the most prominent free school, West London.
In his ebook How to Set Up a Free School, Young argues that few if any more schools like his, wholly controlled and operated by parents, will be established.

Gove, he explains, now requires so much detail before his department provides the support necessary to start a school that "the playing field is now tilted" in favour of the numerous private companies trying to muscle in on state education. "A policy designed to shift the balance of power away from the state and towards volunteer groups has been hijacked," Young concludes.

Gove still refuses to allow companies to make profits from controlling schools. However, the companies that are rushing into the market clearly think that he will eventually change the law - and that is the inescapable logic of his policies.

Watering the babies

Further to my pre-Christmas item about the official French advice to drink no more than a litre of wine a day - which, you will be pleased to learn, I followed throughout the festive period - a reader recalls seeing the same arresting poster as late as 1979 in, of all places, the maternal and infant health section of the French health department.

Perhaps, as she suggests, this explains the sharp fall in the country's infant mortality over the past 30 years.

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 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain