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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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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue