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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear