Harriet Harman at a Hacked Off event in 2013. She has recently come under fire for her PIE connections
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Containing Putin, Paul Dacre’s revenge on Labour, and parenting advice from Boris

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

If you want to understand why Ukraine matters to Vladimir Putin, take a look at a map. The historic heart of Russia has a long land frontier, with plains stretching east, south and west, and few natural defences except the brutality of its winters. Since the Mongols overran Russia from the east in the 13th century and Europeans then helped themselves to its territories from the west, its rulers have feared encirclement and land invasion. In recent years, the US has brought 12 of the Soviet Union’s former central European allies into Nato. Rightly or wrongly, Russians fear that Nato will eventually include Georgia and Ukraine, with which the US already has a “strategic partnership” or “security relationship”.

Putin is the unpleasant head of an unpleasant regime and the Russians’ preference for strong and aggressive leaders (think Ivan the Terrible) is another result of their insecure history. Yet how would we feel if, in a decade or so, an independent Scotland formed a “security relationship” with Russia? How did the US respond in the 1960s to Cuba’s alliance with Moscow?

Recently, on CNN, the former Princeton University professor of Russian studies Stephen Cohen said: “We are witnessing . . . the making possibly of the worst history of our lifetime.” He recalled that the late US diplomat George Kennan, an architect of the cold war “containment” policy, had warned in the 1990s that the expansion of Nato was a fateful mistake. It would, Kennan had said, lead to a new cold war, with the border this time not in Berlin but much further east.

 

Alpha Mail

I doubt the exposure of Harriet Harman’s “links” in the 1970s with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) will do her any long-term damage other than reminding us that she has a patrician distaste for admitting intellectual error or moral shortcoming to a mass audience.

Regardless of one’s views about Harman’s culpability, one is bound, however reluctantly, to admire once more the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre. The PIE and its so-called links with lefties and civil libertarians is a story that surfaces, on average, every other year. Dacre presumably revived it in revenge for Labour forcing a limited, grudging retraction of allegations that Ed Miliband’s late father hated Britain.

The Mail first splashed the PIE story across its front page on 19 February. Everyone ignored it. Many editors might think that their news sense was temporarily malfunctioning. Not Dacre. In the following seven days, the Mail splashed on “Labour links to child sex group” three more times, shouting ever louder.

Eventually, the media chatterers could talk of little else. Even the Guardian ran PIE “exposures”. Dacre, paranoid and chippy, may be the Putin of Fleet Street but he demonstrates repeatedly that newspapers are far from dead.

 

Bringing up baby

Always ready to turn a good case into a bad one, Boris Johnson, writing in his Daily Telegraph column, compared Harman’s blindness to the dangers of the PIE to the current “tolerance” of Islamic radicalisation. Only “political correctness”, he argued, prevents the authorities taking into care children who are taught “crazy stuff” and “habituated” by their parents to “this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world”.

I, too, would prefer children not to be brought up as Islamist radicals. I would also prefer them not to be raised as Tories, prepared to throw poor people out of their home for having too many bedrooms; as Ukip supporters, uncomfortable with hearing any language other than English; or as Blairites, believing crazy stuff about invading countries with governments we don’t like. No wonder the Telegraph website doesn’t show any readers’ comments on Johnson’s column.

 

Sacred and profane

One problem for those who want a non-religious send-off when they die is that churches own most of the best venues. This may explain why a recent memorial service for a non-believer – attended mainly by left-leaning agnostics and atheists, some very militant indeed – was held in a Nonconformist chapel.

The result was a curious truce between the devout and the secular. The resident vicar began with a sort of apology for his presence in, as it were, his own home and hoped we wouldn’t mind a few hymns. I can best describe the singing as less than lusty but there was nothing hushed about the deceased’s friends and colleagues as they spoke in celebration of her life: a fellow mourner counted four uses of the F-word, two of the C-word and one Jesus in the blasphemous sense. In each case, the vicar laughed ostentatiously.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder