Harmlessly naive: Tulisa Contostavlos arrives at Southwark Crown Court, 15 July. Photo: Getty
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Tulisa and the “fake sheikh”, FBI’s home-grown terrorists and why Gove had to go

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column

The News of the World may be dead and so, one hopes, may the phone-hacking habits of its journalists. But one of its star turns, Mazher Mahmood – called the “fake sheikh” because he has often dressed up as one – is still employed by the NoW’s successor, the Sun on Sunday. His chequered career has just suffered another reverse. The trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos on charges of setting up a cocaine deal collapsed on 21 July because, the judge said, there were “strong grounds to believe” that Mahmood – “the sole progenitor of this case, the sole investigator, the sole prosecution witness” – had told lies in evidence.

Contostavlos had allegedly been enticed into getting a friend to supply Mahmood with half an ounce of cocaine. She thought he was an Indian film producer auditioning her for a £3.5m role. Mahmood has many admirable scoops to his credit, notably the exposure of match-fixing by Pakistan cricketers in 2010. Yet many of his stories seem to involve luring the harmlessly naive, such as Contostavlos, into potentially serious misdemeanours. Some have led to expensive trials that collapsed because the “plots” he claimed to have exposed turned out to be bogus: a plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham, for instance, and a conspiracy to “explode a dirty bomb on the streets of Britain”.

In better days, Mahmood would have produced two or three mega-stories a year under intensive editorial supervision. Now, in a fiercely competitive and shrinking market, he is required to produce “exclusives” even when he hasn’t got a real story.

Feel the sting

More serious cases of entrapment – involving law-enforcement agencies and mostly impoverished Muslims, not journalists and glamorous singers – have received little attention. In a new report, Human Rights Watch details cases in which the US’s FBI “may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations”. In 2010 and 2011, the FBI targeted Rezwan Ferdaus, a man with mental-health problems. An informant infiltrated his mosque, devised a plan with him to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol, provided fake weaponry and funded his travel. Ferdaus got 17 years in prison. In at least two instances, the FBI paid people to take part in a terrorist plot.

How often the British police use similar tactics we can’t be sure, but one undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, confessed that he had infiltrated green groups and sometimes played an active role in organising protests. No wonder the police and security services are so anxious to hold trials in secret. 

Takes the Michael

Michael Gove had to be sacked as education secretary because he treated the job as though he were still at the Times. He never distinguished between a bright idea for a 1,000-word Monday-morning column and a serious government policy. “I’ll bring back O-levels” sounded great until everyone remembered O-levels excluded more than half of the nation’s 16-year-olds. Like many columnists, he loved the provocative paradox, displaying a picture of Lenin in his office and insisting that he entered politics purely to assist the poor. But his journalistic instincts made him too many enemies and too often invited ridicule.

Some commentators predict another big job for Gove if the Tories win the election but it’s hard to know what it could be. David Cameron would surely not risk Gove upsetting doctors (“I’ll bring back bloodletting!”) as much as he upset teachers. At the Foreign Office (“I’ll bring back the British Empire!”), he’d probably provoke a nuclear war. The safest option would be defence, where “I’ll bring back the cavalry!” would appeal to animal lovers as well as to the nostalgic.

Testing times

England Test cricketers now come and go with bewildering rapidity. Over the past decade we have had two apparently world-beating sides that disintegrated almost as soon as they reached the top. Matt Prior, the current wicket-keeper, seems finished at 32 after a Test career lasting a mere seven years. The career of one of his predecessors, Alec Stewart, spanned more than 13, ending in 2003 when he was 39. England Test careers now rarely last longer than ten years and players generally retire in their early thirties.

Andrew Flintoff managed an 11-year career but retired at 32. Ian Botham, by contrast, played for 15 years and retired at 36. Overseas players seem to survive: South Africa’s Jacques Kallis retired at 38 after an 18-year career. Perhaps English cricketers have to strain harder to beat anyone. The likely explanation is that the English board, in its money-making zeal, puts players through a more punishing programme. This year’s schedule of five Tests against India in six weeks is just one example. 

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 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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