Man in the Mirror: Brooks Newmark, who resigned as minister for civil society on 27 September. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.