11 Surprising Revelations in the Daily Mail's anti-Leveson hatchet job

Prepare to be amazed by the state of the FT's loos.

Today's Mail has gone all guns blazing against the Leveson inquiry, unveiling a "quasi-masonic" conspiracy of interconnected individuals (what others might call "the media") hell-bent on muzzling the free press. Over a dozen pages, it outlines a shadowy nexus around David Bell, who is one of the Leveson inquiry's assessors, his friend Julia Middleton, the Media Standards Trust and a group called Common Purpose.

Here are 11 of the most surprising pieces of evidence brought to support the Mail's case.

1. It's an EU conspiracy! No, it's a New Labour conspiracy!

Lib Dem donor and one-time SDP activist Bell is a former chairman of the Financial Times, at the time Fleet Street's most zealous supporter of the European Union. Bell is also a former director of the FT's parent company Pearson, which was a financial backer of New Labour. 

2. Many journalists have worked at more than one media organisation in the course of their careers

Ian Hargreaves is a former Ofcom board member and one of the best-connected figures in the liberal Establishment. A founder with Julia Middleton of the New Labour think-tank Demos, Hargreaves was deputy editor at Sir David Bell's Financial Times (Robert Peston was political editor), editor of the Independent and New Statesman, Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC and is now Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University. On the Media Standards Trust website he is listed as a 'supporter' of the Hacked Off campaign.

3. These are some pretty scary people we're talking about:

Mother-of-five Middleton is the founder, chief executive and presiding guru of Common Purpose. She has been described as 'messianic' in her crusade to improve standards in corporate and public life.

4. The Guardian's Milly Dowler hacking splash was all untrue, except the bit we haven't mentioned that wasn't

In July 2011, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Britain’s newspaper industry: The Guardian alleged that the News of the World had deleted messages from murder victim Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, giving her parents ‘false hope’ that she was still alive. Despite the fact that we now know The Guardian story — which followed others detailing the hacking of messages left on celebrities’ phones — was almost certainly untrue, this was the tipping point. [source]

There is some sleight of hand here. In fact, the Guardian's splash that day led on the allegation that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. The idea of deletions was mentioned in the sub-headline. It is now believed by the police that it is impossible to tell what, or who, caused the deletions. Nonetheless, it is not disputed that the paper hacked the phone of a dead girl in the hope of getting a story.

5. Johann Hari is David Bell's fault

Bell and Middleton set up the Media Standards Trust, a lobby group which presented a huge amount of evidence to the Inquiry. The Media Standards Trust, whose chairman was Bell, gave its 'prestigious' Orwell Prize for political writing to a journalist who turned out to have made up parts of his 'award-winning' articles. [source]

6. David Bell is conscientious

It's always the hard-working ones. Richard Pendlebury writes:

But while some of the Leveson assessors have patchy attendance records at the Inquiry, Sir David — whose unbridled eagerness to join the judge in his private rooms when the sittings rise has been remarked upon by observers — seems to have barely missed a day of the public hearings that began almost a year ago.

7. The FT has unisex executive loos

Writing in the New Statesman (bugger, are we part of this semi-masonic conspiracy? Do we need to buy robes?), Robert Peston of the BBC describes a "soiree" held by Middleton:

"Almost all her meetings end up with a collective wail about the irresponsibility and excessive power of the media. . . .Meanwhile, the discovery of the evening for me was that Pearson's executive washroom is unisex, a la Ally McBeal. What is Marjorie Scardino, Pearson's personable chief executive, thinking of?"

The Mail's feature writer, Richard Pendlebury, segues this into:

Peston was unnervingly prescient about one thing. Something has come of that soiree seven years ago.

Go on.

8. From Chris Bryant's underpants to Jean Charles de Menezes in one easy step

Another Common Purpose luminary is Chris Bryant MP — exposed by the press for posing in his underpants on internet dating sites. Bryant, who has led the charge against Rupert Murdoch in the Commons and was a Leveson witness, was Common Purpose's London manager for two years.

Among the senior police officers who are also Common Purpose graduates is Cressida Dick, who was savaged by the press for her leading role in the 2005 shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in a London Underground carriage.

9. We're not like those mad conspiracy theorists!

For a number of years Common Purpose has attracted the obsessive attention of the more outré internet conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, as well as bloggers on the far Right. This has provided a convenient smokescreen against a more rational investigation.

10. That Hugh Grant's pretty shifty, eh? I mean, look at his face

11. I Knew Lesbians Would Be Involved Somehow

The panel included three New Labour peers, including Baroness Helena Kennedy QC — one of Middleton’s top ten ‘inspirational leaders’ and an MST trustee (now acting Chair) — and Dame Suzi Leather, the ‘Quango Queen’ who took flak from the press for championing IVF treatment for lesbians and who was interviewed by Julia Middleton for a film which appeared on the Common Purpose website.

PS. Ssh! No one mention our shadowy nexus

Tragically, there was no space to mention that the Daily Mail is edited by Paul Dacre, who is chairman of the Code of Practice committee, which governs the workings of the current press regulator, the PCC. 

Dacre once sat on a subway train near Sid Vicious, incidentally. Does that make him responsible for punk music?

Paul Dacre. Photo: Getty Images
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation