The new Murdoch, getting personal with Andrew Marr, and foodies in the East End

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Many youngish journalists in the newspaper industry, wondering if their job will still be there next year, may rejoice that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has taken over the Washington Post, where operating profits have more than halved in the past seven years. But the news alarms me.
Amazon is a threat to every form of retail life on the planet. It avoids taxes. It provides cloud services to the CIA. It allegedly treats warehouse workers with the severity of Victorian mill-owners and does all it can to discourage unionisation. Bezos has bought the Post personally rather than through Amazon but it surely isn’t, as some commentators have suggested, an act of philanthropy. There is nothing to prevent him from using Amazon’s platforms to promote and sell the Post and its digital offerings, potentially giving him almost as big a stranglehold over news as his company now has over book retailing.
As the Post’s Lydia DePillis suggests, he could put a print copy of the newspaper in every Amazon package, offering the paper’s advertisers a new audience of millions. He could make the Post the default app on every Kindle. He could feature Post videos on the Amazon Prime welcome screen. He could use the prestige from owning the Post brand to persuade politicians writing their memoirs to publish digitally with Amazon.
We worry about Rupert Murdoch acquiring too much control of media outlets. We should worry as much – probably more – about Bezos.

Reality bites

By the time you read this, the most awful slaughter may have occurred in Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East. So I know that I am risking a large and messy quantity of egg over my face. Yet, so far, the only sources for the belief that an al-Qaeda attack is imminent –which has led to the closure of US embassies and advice to US nationals to leave Yemen – are the US National Security Agency and the Yemeni intelligence services.
Both have a clear vested interest in talking up threats. Perhaps it is very cynical of me (and, again, I know I may look foolish in a day or two) but I don’t think it is a coincidence that news of this “threat” has emerged so soon after Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance.
When intelligence services are criticised, they can defend themselves, to borrow the words of a George W Bush aide, by creating their own reality.

Road rage

One of the things that I like least about Conservative ministers is how they never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with whingeing motorists who believe that the world should be organised so they can park 3,000 pounds of steel wherever and whenever they wish. (I write, of course, as a non-driver.)
Local councils, ministers insist, should not treat motorists as “cash cows”. The revenue from parking charges should be used for road maintenance and similar benefits for motorists, not other local services. Why? Should tobacco duty be used exclusively for the treatment of smokers’ ill-health?
Space to park cars without danger or inconvenience to others is a scarce resource. It should be priced according to what the market dictates. If people can’t or won’t pay, they should walk or take buses, with benefits to their health and everybody else’s.

Beat happening

Contemporary culture requires celebrities to discuss in public matters that they would once have hesitated to discuss with their closest friends. So Andrew Marr, in an interview with the Observer’s Robert McCrum, goes over the details not only of his stroke and its aftermath but also of his family life.
With Marr’s spouse, Jackie Ashley, on hand, McCrum finds “the moment to introduce a vexed question from the past”: an extramarital affair that Marr wrongly thought had resulted in him fathering a child. Mc- Crum reports the response thus: “ ‘If we need to go back over that stuff,’ says Ashley, resolute and phlegmatic, ‘our problems were from ten years ago. We have moved on anyway.’ A beat. ‘I suppose.’”
I like McCrum’s theatrical touch but for full dramatic effect, shouldn’t “a beat” have been accompanied by Marr illustrating the progress of his physio regime by delivering a firm boot to McCrum’s groin area?

Eastern promises

You wouldn’t expect to find a Michelinstarred restaurant in the historically workingclass district of Bethnal Green in east London, even though the area has been somewhat yuppified by its proximity to the City.
To celebrate our wedding anniversary, my wife and I decided to give Viajante (which means “traveller” in Portuguese), housed in the former town hall, a try. The restaurant serves a “blind-tasting menu”, which comprises a series of tiny portions, the only choice being between a menu of six, nine or 12 courses. The names and ingredients of each dish are disclosed when they are brought to your table.
The food turned out to be stunning and the waiters’ performance, over a meal lasting three hours, as absorbing as a ballet. Despite the eye-watering prices, the place was packed. This, I suppose, represents the future. While our staple diet comprises hamburgers, massproduced from stem cells, we occasionally escape to sample small, handcrafted dishes, presented with a flourish.
Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post for $250million. Is he the new Murdoch? Photograph: Getty Images.

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 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Show Hide image

There’s no other explanation for Boris Johnson – he must be a Russian spy

When you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence.

I had a hunch some time ago, but a source very close to the Federal Security Service strongly implied it during an odd meeting that we recently had at a hotel in Charing Cross, London: Boris Johnson is an agent of deep Russian penetration. Obviously his first name is a bluff – Boris the Bear has been hiding in plain view of millions of us Britons. I have no idea when he was recruited (on this matter, my informant remained obstinately silent), but if we look back over the Foreign Secretary’s career, the evidence is clear.

Take his well-known inability to keep his trousers on. It might be imagined that a bedheaded Don Juan was the last person you’d entrust to enter the “wilderness of mirrors”, as the secret world is often euphemised. But if Boris were a Russian agent, his physical jerkiness would make perfect sense. All intelligence agencies use blackmail to control their assets and honeytraps are the preferred way of doing it.

However, what if you instructed your agent to keep his muzzle more or less permanently in the honey jar? Under such circumstances, it would be altogether impossible for MI5 to compromise him: “Boris shags secretary/colleague/newspaper editor”, say, would hardly be news.

Speaking of news, when you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence. His stint at the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, for instance, began in the year that the Berlin Wall fell. Johnson’s articles, in which he sniped consistently at the European Commission, helped to exacerbate the tensions between Tory Eurosceptics and Europhiles – fissures which, as the world has turned, have grown, precipitating the sort of fragmentation that the Kremlin’s spymasters seek to create in the West.

With my novelistic hat on, I can say that Johnson’s literary style has always bothered me. Replete with recondite yet poorly understood terms and half-digested quotations, his prose has the pretentious clunkiness you would expect from someone who isn’t writing in their first language. My suspicions, inchoate for years, have now acquired palpable form: Johnson doesn’t write any of this magoosalum. It’s all typed up by Russian hacks, leaving him free to shin up the greasy pole . . .

And slide along the Emirati-sponsored zip wire, as well. It has always seemed strange, Johnson’s apparently wilful determination to place himself in undignified positions. But again, it makes sense when you know that it is part of an elaborate act, intended to subvert our ancient institutions and the dignity of our high offices of state.

The dribs and drabs of distinctly Russian racism – the “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” that fall from his permanently pink lips – are yet more evidence of the long hours he has spent being debriefed. An agent of deep penetration will live for years under so-called natural cover, a sleeper, waiting to be activated by his masters.

But it’s predictable that while waiting, Johnson’s handlers should have instructed him to throw suspicion off by adopting contrarian positions – his call for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London to protest against the bombing of Aleppo is entirely consistent with this – and it has also had the beneficial effect of further emphasising British weakness and impotence.

You might have thought that Vladimir Putin (who apparently refers to Johnson affectionately, in private, as “Little Bear” or “Pooh”) would want one of his most precious assets to shin right to the top of that greasy pole. Not so, and the debacle surrounding the Tories’ post-Brexit night of the long knives, which was revealed in Tim Shipman’s new book, was in reality a complex manoeuvre designed expressly to place Putin’s man (or bear) in the Foreign Office. Johnson’s flip-flopping over whether to come out for Leave or Remain makes no sense if we consider him to be a principled and thoughtful politician, loyal to his constituency – but becomes understandable once we see the strings and realise that he’s nothing but a marionette, twisting and turning at his puppeteers’ prompting.

After all, prime ministers can be rather impotent figures, whereas foreign secretaries bestride the world stage. No, the only way that Putin can be sure to have his way – bombing Aleppo back to the Stone Age, subverting Ukrainian independence – is by having his beloved Pooh bumbling about at summit meetings. Think back to Johnson’s tenure as mayor of London and the vast river of Russian lucre that flowed into the City. The Kremlin has also been able to manipulate errant oligarchs as if they, too,
were marionettes.

And now comes the final proof, as if any were needed: the government’s decision to support a third runway for Heathrow. Will Johnson resign over this matter of deepest principle? Will he truly represent his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituents who labour night and day under a toxic smir to the accompaniment of jet howls? Will he hell. There will be a few of his characteristically garbled statements on the matter and then he will fall silent. You all know that slightly sleepy yet concentrating expression that comes over his face when he thinks that the cameras are pointed elsewhere? That’s when Johnson is receiving his instructions through a concealed earpiece.

Should we worry that our Foreign Secretary is in the control of a sinister and manipulative foreign demagogue? Well, probably not too much. After all, think back to previous incumbents: great statesmen such as Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and William Hague. Do you really imagine that any of them struck fear deep into the heart of the Russian military-industrial complex? 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage