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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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