Harriet Harman speaks at last year's Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Harman is right to go to war with the Daily Mail

Rather than merely rebutting the paper's smears, Labour's deputy leader is right to question its fitness to deliver moral lectures at all.

In an age of declining press influence, the Daily Mail's success in forcing its story on the "links" between Labour figures and a paedophile rights group (which is not a new one) onto the national news is a reminder of how Fleet Street can still set the agenda. Labour's initial response to the Mail's splash last Thursday, which branded Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt "apologists for paedophilia" over their alleged support for the now-defunct Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the 1970s, was to ignore it (in common with the rest of the media). But after the Mail led twice more on the story, and columnists in other papers, including the Observer and the Sunday Mirror argued that there were questions to answer, the party broke its silence yesterday. 

In response to a question from Sky News, Ed Miliband said of Harman, who, as the party's deputy leader, is the most senior figure targeted: "I have known her for 20 years. I do not set any store by these allegations. I know she has a long and proud record of being on the right side of all of these issues." This was followed by a lengthy statement by Harman herself and one from Dromey, her husband and the shadow policing minister (Hewitt has remained silent). Then, last night, in the most public intervention from any Labour figure yet, Harman gave an interview to Newsnight (which you can watch in full above) devoted to the story.

While rebutting the central charge that she was a supporter of PIE during her time as legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties (the predecessor group to Liberty), and the claim that she sought to water down a ban on child pornography, Harman also moved from defence to attack. She declared of the Mail:

It is ironic that they're accusing me of supporting indecency in relation to children when they themselves are not above producing photographs of very young girls, titivating [sic] photographs in bikinis, so, you know, I stand by what I was doing at NCCL and I stand by what I was doing all the way through.

And added: "If there's anybody, over the years, who has supported indecency, it is much more the Daily Mail than it is me - and that's the frank truth of it."

After the Mail's disastrous attempt to smear Ralph Miliband as "the man who hated Britain" (which Labour believes explains the paper's current vitriol), the party's figures are more confident than ever in questioning its moral legitimacy and Harman (invariably referred to as "Harperson" in its pages) has more reason than most to challenge its authority. In his recent profile of Paul Dacre for the NS, Peter Wilby published this memorable charge sheet: 

This year, the Mail reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax; that asylum-seekers had “targeted” Scotland; that disabled babies were being euthanised under the Liverpool Care Pathway; that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his home country; that 878,000 recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming “rather than face a fresh medical”; that a Portsmouth primary school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan; that wolves would soon return to Britain; that nearly half the electricity produced by windfarms was discarded. All these reports were false.

But Harman's fightback was marred by her failure to express explicit regret for the rules which allowed PIE to affiliate itself to the National Council for Civil Liberties (which is not, of course, the same thing as the NCCL endorsing the group). Rather than simply conceding that the NCCL was wrong to allow itself to be infilitrated in this manner (as Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti has previously done), Harman embarked on a convoluted explanation of the relationship. She said: "They paid their money to NCCL and, at the time...well, NCCL takes money from any organisation which was a lawful organisation and any individual."

She went on to reassure viewers that the group held no sway in the NCCL but failed to simply declare that it was wrong for the potential to exist at all. This morning, Harman corrected that omission, with an aide stating: "She regrets the existence of PIE and of course she regrets any organisations' involvement with them including the NCCL. But she does not regret joining the NCCL. By the time she arrived, (PIE) were very much under the radar."

Harman's reluctance to issue anything resembling an "apology" was understandable. It risked being seen as an admission of guilt and as a validation of the Mail's smears. After banking her "apology", the Mail would next demand her resignation. But while now expressing appropriate regret for the NCCL's past laxity, Harman is, crucially, not retreating from the battlefield. She stands by her accusation that the Mail publishes "indecent photos" and "will not take lectures from them". On this point, she is entirely right. Rather than merely challenging the message, it is essential to challenge the messenger too. The Mail's deeds, both past and present (from "Hurrah to the Blackshirts" to "The man who hated Britain"), mean it is standing on the thinnest moral ground. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Tony Blair's disingenuous line on Iraq eroded our faith in politicians

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne reveals how Blair exagerrated evidence from the intelligence services to parliament – and the public.

In this incisive book, Peter Oborne calls the invasion of Iraq “the defining calamity of the post-Cold War era” and I am inclined to agree. Not long after the March 2003 attack, I interviewed Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and UN ambassador for Iraq. He told me that he had visited President George W Bush in Washington a few weeks before the invasion and begged him not to go ahead with it. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would, Pachachi warned, lead inevitably to civil war between Iraq’s two main religious groupings, the Sunnis and the Shias. Bush was shocked. According to Pachachi, he had no idea that any such division among Muslims existed.

Granted, Bush was an ignoramus – but you would have thought that someone might have explained this crucial fact to him. Pachachi turned out to be right. Iraq has fallen into a disastrous religious civil war as a direct result of the invasion and Isis, a more extreme force even than al-Qaeda, has come to the fore. Nearly 5,000 coalition soldiers died; many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, perhaps a million, have lost their lives; and the man who led the whole terrible business didn’t know that the danger even existed.

Pachachi, like many politicians across the Middle East, found this puzzling. The US had never understood the Middle East, he said, but the British did; so why hadn’t Tony Blair warned the Americans what was going to happen? We know the answer to that: although Blair was far cleverer than Bush and had better advisers, his approach was always a subservient one. Like the entire British establishment, he believed that Britain’s influence in the world depended on sticking close to the US and he was prepared to be led around on a leash because he knew that this was the only relationship Bush’s people understood or wanted from him.

To “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Bush – at least, to stand closer behind him, head bowed, than any other national leader – Blair had to persuade the British people that Saddam posed a threat to them. Oborne, in fine forensic form, demolishes (his word) the notion that Blair was simply repeating what the intelligence services had told him about Saddam’s weapons and capability; he shows that Blair exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence he was given.

Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who had investigated the government’s pre-invasion use of intelligence, said the same thing in a speech in the House of Lords in 2007. He described Blair’s approach as “disingenuous”: mandarin-speak for dishonest. Oborne quotes Butler at length:

 

The United Kingdom intelligence community told him [Blair] on 23 August 2002 that, “We . . . know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988.” The prime minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.

 

Oborne’s central point is that this dishonesty has done serious damage to the fundamental trust that the British people used to have in their rulers. There are all sorts of reasons why people have lost faith in politicians but it was the charismatic Blair – along with his head of communications, Alastair Campbell – who let us down the most.

Campbell is a former journalist who, even when he was the political editor of the Daily Mirror, seemed far more concerned with pushing a party line than with trying to report things truthfully. In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused him of “sexing up” the dossier on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Campbell was irate. In July, Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence weapons expert who had briefed Gilligan, committed suicide. If, indeed, it was suicide – once you start losing faith in the ­official version of things, there is no end to it. And that is Oborne’s point.

Kelly’s death was followed by the scandalous Hutton inquiry, which managed to deflect attention from the questionable nature of the dossier to the way in which Gilligan had reported on it. However, although Kelly wasn’t a sufficiently senior source for Gilligan to base his report on, there is no doubt that Gilligan was essentially right: the intelligence dossier had been grossly hyped up. Campbell’s frenzied efforts to protect himself and Blair did huge damage to the BBC, the judiciary, the intelligence and security agencies and public trust in government.

Oborne’s excellent book is clear-headed and furious in its condemnation of Blair. But what about the Chilcot report, when it appears on 6 July? The ludicrous delay in publishing it has given people the expectation that it, too, will be a whitewash. Yet we are starting to get leaks that it won’t be – that it will be just as savage as Oborne would like. That is the only way we can start to drain the poison that has built up in our national life since Blair took the calamitous decision to follow the US into invading a country that its president knew zip about.

John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the world affairs editor of the BBC

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne is published by Head of Zeus (208pp, £10)

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad