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
DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.