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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.