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The death of the scoop, the Mail’s brilliant “Legs-it” pun and the milkman returns

Tabloid newspapers trivialise and sexualise almost everything.

Tabloid newspapers trivialise and sex­ualise almost everything. After a murderous rampage on Westminster Bridge, they publish a picture of the perpetrator’s teenage daughter “headed to a school prom night in a revealing backless dress” (the Sun), noting approvingly that “she has refused to give up her middle-class Western lifestyle” while her older sister “embraced the burqa” (Daily Mail).

Then, as Theresa May meets Nicola Sturgeon to discuss whether a 310-year-old union between their countries has a future, the Mail publishes a front-page picture of the two women sitting in above-the-knee skirts and shiny nude tights, headlined: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” Nero fiddled while Rome burned; the Mail admires women’s legs while the UK crumbles.

Inside, below more full-length pictures of the two women and more excruciating puns (“skirting around the issue”), the Mail columnist Sarah Vine explains that “May’s . . . long extremities are demurely arranged . . . knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal”. Sturgeon’s legs are “altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed”. It is, Vine warns, “a direct attempt at seduction”. Scots have a choice: “the reliable, measured . . . Mrs May” and the “safety” of the Union, or “a wild, dangerous leap into the unknown” and “a lifetime of regrets”.

You can call all this shameful, demeaning and sexist, and you would be right. But it is also brilliant: an example of political comment (or propaganda, if you prefer) wrapped in a package that many people will enjoy, laugh at and talk about. It is what tabloid newspapers do. They humanise news that most people might otherwise find dull and abstract. If you don’t like it, don’t read them.


Redtop or dead

Television and radio producers, however, do read them, particularly the Mail. So do politicians. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if they read anything else. The BBC featured the Mail’s “Legs-it” prominently on its online news front page and Radio 4’s World at One. The former Tory cabinet minister and Remain supporter Nicky Morgan took to Twitter and the airwaves to express her outrage, as did Jeremy Corbyn (“This sexism must be consigned to history”) and Harriet Harman (“Moronic!”).

The numbers who buy newspapers dwindle by the month. But nearly all online and broadcast news derives from the traditional press, which therefore sets the agenda. That is why politicians court Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful proprietor, and would court Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, and Lord Rothermere, the Mail’s proprietor, if either were at all biddable. No party leader of the past forty years has flourished without keeping the press onside. Ed Miliband, who bravely made clear his hostility to the Murdoch papers as well as the Mail, badly lost an election he ought to have won. ­Corbyn, whose clumsy public performances make him too easy to mock and whose team lacks anybody with understanding of tabloid newspapers, stands no chance.


A bigger splash

Britain’s tabloids are the world’s most successful mass-circulation papers; MailOnline has more readers than any other English-language website on the planet.

Their problem is revenue, with print sales down and advertising fleeing to Google and Facebook. So, papers are desperate to make an impact. The old-style scoop won’t quite do it because its gist will be across the web in seconds, with few acknowledging the source. To command attention, newspapers must give a distinctive twist to stories, with displays that become ever bigger, brighter and more outrageous, like peacocks’ tail feathers. This explains why papers are so shrill in their politics and so unpleasant to their opponents.

To get the full flavour of the Mail’s Brexit-supporting bigotry, and its spiteful personal attacks on Remainers, you have to see the real thing. Otherwise, it’s like relying on someone else’s account of a vital football match. You miss all the excitement.


Brexit bug

As I watched the BBC Question Time special on Brexit the other night, it struck me that we could still be in the middle of the referendum campaign. The arguments were identical to those we heard last summer. The Leavers still promise a glittering future selling our goods to Australia and New Zealand. The Remainers still warn of economic ruin, ten-mile queues at Dover and mass deportations of expat pensioners in Spain.

Here is my prediction. These exchanges will continue for the next two years. Negotiations in Brussels will perpetually teeter on the brink of collapse. The final session will last all night. Exhausted negotiators will emerge with a deal of sorts but nobody will agree on what it means. Leavers and ­Remainers alike will scream “betrayal”, both alleging that we are condemned to indefinite economic stagnation.

And then, out of the EU, we shall find nothing much has changed. We shall still do most of our trade with Europe; we shall keep most EU “red tape”; Polish plumbers and Romanian hop-pickers will still find their way here. It reminds me of the millennium bug. We were warned for years before 2000 that computers, unable to cope with altering four digits at once, would cause planes to fall from the skies. On 1 January 2000, nothing happened. Nor will it on the anticipated “independence day”, 29 March 2019.


No use crying . . .

Clink, clink! The once familiar sound of milk bottles being delivered to our doorstep before dawn. A new local firm claims to deliver more or less directly from the cow’s udder and pay farmers a fair price.

We wallow in the nostalgia of a classic bottle with its silver top which, during our 1950s childhoods, birds would peck. Then, after using the bottle once or twice, there emerges from the fridge a long-forgotten smell. The top has slipped off; milk has spilt.

I can’t help feeling that, somewhere in this episode, there’s a metaphor for Brexit. 

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 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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