Sophy Ridge: My Friday with George, off-message tweets and life as a woman in the lobby

Anyone for caulking, weekend chats with George Osborne, or treks out to Eastleigh? Who ever said life in TV was glamorous? Sophy Ridge writes the diary.

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Moody’s blues

Working weekends can either be intermin­ably quiet or ridiculously busy. When the ratings agency Moody’s announced that the UK economy had been downgraded from triple-A status, I knew it would be the latter. Moments later, I was swept inside No 11 to interview George Osborne for Sky News. Making announcements late on a Friday night might suit the markets but it does nothing for the social life of journalists.

Then, any thoughts of a quieter Sunday were quickly dashed when the papers were full of stories about the Lib Dem peer Chris Rennard. He is facing allegations of sexual harassment, which he strongly denies. Once again, I found myself being whisked into a room to interview the key player. This time, it was Nick Clegg, who angrily denied knowing about “these allegations” but admitted that he had been made aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns”. What exactly is the difference? Somehow a story about serious allegations had turned into an argument about semantics.

Juggling act

Writing of the allegations against Lord Rennard, I can’t help but feel that the Lib Dems would benefit from having a few more women on the airwaves.

They are hampered by having a meagre seven female MPs – and it’s not just the Lib Dems with that problem. Images of fusty gentlemen drinking whisky in smoky corridors are wide of the mark but, in some aspects, Westminster can still feel like an old boys’ club.

One high-profile female Labour frontben­cher told me that when she went to pick up a “spouse pass” for her other half, the parliamentary official simpered: “You must be so proud of your husband.”

This attitude can also sadly be found further up the Westminster food chain. I know of a current member of the cabinet who told a colleague that he didn’t believe working mums could successfully juggle top jobs in government with having a family. “They just can’t do it,” he said, implying that they were struggling to keep up with their male counterparts at work.

Suits you

Not that a political journalist can throw stones – the number of women in the lobby is an embarrassment. I remember being introduced to an MP by a male colleague when I had recently joined the lobby as a newspaper hack. “Nice to meet you,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Do you work for the fashion pages?”

I was dressed in a suit and was walking through Portcullis House with a lobby pass. Most people would have thought these were pretty good hints as to my job description.

Earnest of Eastleigh

The Rennard allegations are a row that the party could do without before the Eastleigh by-election, which pitted the two sides of the coalition against each other for the first time.

I’m at a slight disadvantage because by the time this appears in the magazine, the result will be old news. What I can say for sure is that this was the Lib Dems’ contest to lose. They have an impressive local base, with 40 of the 44 councillors who represent wards in the constituency. The party’s well-oiled by-election machine – masterminded by none other than Lord Rennard – was in overdrive at the time of writing.

The Conservatives were also desperate to win because it’s a test of David Cameron’s election strategy. The consensus is that if he is to win a majority in 2015, he needs to take about 20 seats off his coalition partners/ri­vals. If he can’t do it in seats such as Eastleigh, his party will become more agitated about its prospects in two years’ time.

A steady stream of Conservative MPs have jumped on the train from Waterloo or driven up the M3 to the old railway town – all determined to stick it to the Lib Dems.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. I was out campaigning with Eric Pickles when a man holding a young child opened the door. “How old is your daughter?” the secretary of state asked cheerfully. “He’s a boy,” was the rather less happy reply.

Coalicious cycle

The best thing about the Eastleigh by-election, however, has been the Conservative MP Michael Fabricant’s tweets.

This is one politician who was truly wasted in the government – ever since he left the whips’ office, his quirky sense of humour has been unleashed. “Just spotted Vince Cable in #Eastleigh looking like a war criminal with hat pulled over face #indisguise Lol,” he wrote, followed swiftly by: “My last tweet was distinctly not very #Coalicious!!”

He has also been tweeting the various notices pinned on people’s doors that show just how enamoured residents are of the political attention.

One read: “All political parties campaigning for the Eastleigh by-election, please do not knock on my door, please just **** off!” Another threatened to shoot campaigning politicians on sight. Who would want to live in a marginal constituency?

Caulking and talking

I was hoping to be able to drop some impressive-sounding cultural exhibition into this diary – but, alas, it hasn’t happened.

This is largely because I’ve recently bought a house and most of my days off are spent liaising with plumbers or making mad dashes to Ikea.

I’m now an expert in all manner of brain-numbingly boring things and have learned a lexicon that I didn’t realise existed until now: caulking, rising damp, olives that are parts of radiators rather than something you eat. At a party this weekend, rather than discussing the latest trendy gigs or hot gossip, I found myself in a heated debate with a friend about the merits of feature walls.

Taking a step back, I couldn’t help thinking: I’ve spent my Friday night with George Osborne and my Saturday night discussing DIY – who said TV was glamorous?

Sophy Ridge is political correspondent for Sky News. She tweets as @SophyRidgeSky

A bookmakers' odds for the Eastleigh by-election. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.