Man in the Mirror: Brooks Newmark, who resigned as minister for civil society on 27 September. Photo: Getty
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Tabloid stings, Littlejohn’s dreadful jokes and the inaudible word of God

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

The case of Brooks Newmark, the now former “minister for civil society” (an absurd post created to give substance to David Cameron’s “big society” sound bites), demonstrates exactly why we need reliable press regulation. But newspapers have put themselves in the ridiculous position where, in this first major test of the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), set up unilaterally by the press without the statutory underpinning required by the Leveson report and agreed by MPs, the regulator is almost bound to deny the defence any benefit of doubt. It may even feel compelled to fine the Sunday Mirror, the paper that “exposed” Newmark, who believed a young woman would be interested in his genitals and was presumably surprised when “she” turned out to be a male freelance journalist.

The paper certainly seems to be on weak ground. It was not exposing a habitual offender. As is the case with many tabloid stings, no misbehaviour occurred until the newspaper provoked it. It may be in the public interest to expose a minister’s stupidity but we already had an idea of Newmark’s mental capacities from his recent comment that charities should stick to knitting.

Equally, it is doubtful that the Sunday Mirror did anything criminal and that Newmark, wealthy though he is, would wish to seek remedies through the civil courts. The law is too cumbersome for cases that raise the question of when entrapment can be justified. That is why we need regulation. If the press had accepted a statutory framework, the Sunday Mirror would probably have got away with it, since an approved regulator would have bent over backwards to avoid any appearance of suppressing stories inconvenient or embarrassing to ministers and MPs. Ipso, however, must err in the opposite direction to allay accusations that newspapers set it up so they could carry on as before. For the Sunday Mirror’s editor, Lloyd Embley, I predict, the future is bleak.

Serious business

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s “clarifications and corrections” column announces: “A comment article on 13 August about the European Court of Human Rights said that the supply of heroin and gay porn was now a ‘right’. We are happy to clarify that this was not meant to be taken seriously.”

The article was written by the Mail’s star columnist Richard Littlejohn, who sometimes writes humorous columns (though they don’t necessarily make you laugh) and often exaggerates for rhetorical effect. But this piece was headlined “Britain’s now a judicial dictatorship” and the claim about prisoners being granted a right to heroin and gay porn appeared in a list of other rights allegedly granted by the European Court. Littlejohn gave no indication that this claim was to be taken less or more seriously than the others. Should we now assume that the rest of the article was not meant to be taken seriously? Should we assume that nothing the Mail says about European institutions, human rights or prisons is meant to be taken seriously? Should we in future treat the Mail as a journal of comedy?

My enemy’s enemy

These are puzzling times. First, we were going to bomb Syrian government forces. After MPs rejected that idea, Cameron proposed bombing Islamic State, the government’s strongest enemies, and got overwhelming support even from Labour. Perhaps MPs feel sorry for him and want to give the poor guy a break.

It is hard to think of any other reason. IS kills people brutally and arbitrarily and puts videos online to prove it. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, also commits atrocities (and allegedly uses chemical weapons) but doesn’t boast about them. That is really the only difference between the two and I don’t see how we can justify backing one side rather than the other.

But I long ago gave up trying to understand western policies in the Middle East. In the 1980s, we supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. Then, in 2003, we overthrew him, purged his Sunni supporters and paved the way for a sectarian Shia government that immediately allied itself with the theocratic Shia regime in Iran.

Still, we’re playing with the big boys. As I write, the Ministry of Defence has announced that our aircraft have bombed their first Islamic State targets. I am reminded of schoolboys in autumn boasting of how their conkers broke other boys’ conkers.

Keeping up with Jones

To the funeral of David Nicholson-Lord, a colleague at the Independent on Sunday and later a frequent New Statesman contributor. A passionate environmentalist, an iconoclast and a beautiful writer, he died, at 67, too young. His articles were guaranteed to enrage critics who thought we should be more fun-loving and less exercised about, for example, poverty and the future of humanity. One NS piece – arguing that humanity, staring at screens inside air-conditioned offices, was regressing to its cave-dwelling origins – particularly upset that quintessential cave-dweller, the GQ editor, Dylan Jones. He held it up for ridicule in a Guardian column arguing at length that I, then the editor, was not enough of a show-off.

David regarded it as a badge of honour to be abused by Jones, the self-appointed arbiter of contemporary style. So did I.

Peace be with you

At David’s funeral, I found the addresses by the vicar, family and friends largely inaudible. My hearing has always been poor but, among a congregation of mature years (usually the case at funerals), I wasn’t alone in this complaint. I do not blame the speakers but the sound system, the inadequacies of which were demonstrated when the vicar abandoned his microphone at the end of the service and could suddenly be heard loud and clear. This was not an exception. At most church services, I can hear neither sermon nor readings. One assumes churches are keen to spread God’s word. Why don’t they invest in better sound systems so that it can be heard?

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 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.