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The news that GHCQ spies on journalists reveals a threat to a free, independent press

Broadchurch, Page 3, inequality, and the importance of journalistic independence.

A woman looks at e-mails. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Will the right-wing press now concede that Edward Snowden, the American computing contractor who leaked classified US security documents, is not a traitor but a brave whistleblower who performed an enormous service to western democracy? Thanks to the Snowden files, we now know that emails from the BBC, Reuters, Guar­dian, New York Times, Le Monde, NBC, Washington Post and even the Sun were accessed and retained by GCHQ, which lists investigative journalists as a higher-priority threat than terrorists.

The Mail on Sunday made a great fuss about how police hacked its phone records to identify the sources of stories that led to the conviction of the former cabinet minister Chris Huhne for perverting the course of justice. Such intrusion, the paper argued, “strikes at the heart of one of the bulwarks of a free, independent press”. Indeed, yes. And the systematic trawling of press emails – the Snowden files reveal that GCHQ accessed 70,000 in less than ten minutes on one day in 2008 – would pose a similar threat, making investigative journalism, particularly across national boundaries, all but impossible.

Yet the Daily Mail and its attack dogs, particularly Max Hastings and Stephen Glover – former broadsheet editors who should know better – have persistently criticised Snowden. Hastings launched his latest Exo­cet after the Charlie Hebdo atrocities, implying that Snowden, Julian Assange and their supporters would have blood on their hands if similar attacks came to Britain. Snowden, he wrote, was “a treacherous fugitive” who “damaged the security of each and every one of us” and issued a stirring call to “acquiesce in electronic surveillance”.

Can Hastings explain how collecting journalists’ emails assists “the security of each and every one of us”?

 

Page three puts a top on

Why the Sun? Perhaps GCHQ thought it was hiding secret messages in the captions to its page three girls. Whatever the truth, the page three stunner, after 45 years, is no more. Unlike my feminist colleagues, I was never greatly exercised about the feature. If anything, it seemed more offensive in the 1970s, when it represented the vulgarity, raucousness and general celebration of ignorance that Rupert Murdoch brought to the British press. In recent years, against far worse objectification of women on countless internet sites, it seemed harmlessly quaint, a sign that the Sun was an ailing, unfashionable, onanistic newspaper not to be taken seriously. My fear now is that Murdoch’s editors will find worse things to put on page three, such as more rants against “benefit scroungers” and immigrants.

 

Unequal voices on inequality

A curiosity of the age is that the Organisa­tion for Economic Co-operation and Development, International Monetary Fund and World Bank – gatekeepers of the “Washington consensus” in favour of letting markets rip – have far more to say about inequality than either the US Democrats (at least, until President Obama’s latest speech) or the British Labour Party.

“Lower net inequality,” the IMF reported last year, “is robustly correlated with faster and more durable growth.” To Blairites, the E-word (for equality) is more of an obscenity than either the F- or C-word. As for class war, it was left to the billionaire American investor Warren Buffett to admit that there is one and that his class is winning it.

And now the Davos economic summit, the annual shindig of the top 0.0001 per cent (approximately), has invited the executive director of Oxfam International to be a co-chair. She will tell the assembled plutocrats – as she was presumably expected to do – that “rising inequality is dangerous”.

What is going on? You can choose between two explanations. First, that the elite want to seize the narrative of inequality and initiate minor ameliorations to avoid more serious disturbance of the post-Keynesian, small-state capitalist order. The IMF hinted at this when it reported that, according to some economists, “even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy”. The second explanation is that the rulers of capitalism have lost faith in their ideology and will
abdicate, as did the rulers of communist Russia and apartheid South Africa. All that is needed, in this scenario, is a Gorbachev or de Klerk. Perhaps Buffett should assume that role and run for the White House.

 

Sponsor the Queen

Meanwhile, corporate dominance of our public life continues with Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the London Eye, which, henceforth, will be decorated in the dreadful drink’s garish red. Some national institutions – the monarchy, parliament, Downing Street, the Church of England, for example – continue to resist sponsorship. But for how long? If the Queen lived in Starbucks Palace, MPs debated in the Vodafone Chamber and David Cameron resided in 10 Amazon Street, at least the Treasury would get something from tax-avoiding corporations.

 

I told you so

I wrote two weeks ago that I don’t normally watch sequels because the plots become contrived. But I didn’t anticipate the extent to which ITV’s Broadchurch would follow this rule. The sequel has featured not just implausible coincidences – the worst of which were highlighted by my colleague Rachel Cooke in her TV review last week – but also numerous events that simply could not happen in an English criminal case.

The family of the boy murdered in the first series would not be allowed to select their own prosecuting barrister when the case came to trial (unless it were a private prosecution, which this isn’t), nor would the prosecutor agree to meet witnesses informally in advance. Nor would the jury remain in court while barristers argued before the judge over whether confession evidence should be excluded.

Just as I feared, Broadchurch has become a second-rate soap opera.

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 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.