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In this week’s New Statesman | Summer Double Issue

A first look inside this week’s magazine.

25 JULY 2014

SUMMER DOUBLE ISSUE

 

TOM WATSON: SHADOW CABINET COWARDS SHOULD BACK MILIBAND OR STEP DOWN

– AND WHY I FELT SORRY FOR ANDY COULSON

 

JEREMY BOWEN: A VISIT TO GAZA’S HOSPITALS SHOWS THAT THE PALESTINIANS ARE SUFFERING MORE

 

JOHN SIMPSON ON BOKO HARAM AND NIGERIA’S LOST GIRLS

 

Plus

 

GEORGE EATON: WHY LABOUR FEARS VICTORY AS MUCH AS DEFEAT

JACQUI SMITH’S DIARY: ALL-WOMEN SHORTLISTS AND THE JOY OF SUMMER CARAVANNING

RAGE AGAINST EMBARRASSMENT: ROWAN WILLIAMS ON DYLAN THOMAS AND TEENAGE MEMORIES

STILETTOS AND HIJABS: RAMITA NAVAI ON IRAN’S SEXUAL REVOLUTION

MICHAEL KENNY AND IPPR’S NICK PEARCE: POPULISM IS DRIVING US INTO A POST-DEMOCRATIC ERA IN POLITICS

OLIVER BULLOUGH: HOW EVANGELICAL FAITH GROUPS COULD CHANGE THE OUTCOME OF THE NEXT ELECTION

HACKS IN THE DOCK: DUNCAN CAMPBELL’S HISTORY OF JAILED JOURNALISTS

JOHN LLOYD, QI CREATOR, ON WHY LAUGHTER MAKES US HUMAN

TWO NEW POEMS BY CLIVE JAMES: “NATURE PROGRAMME” AND “THE EMPEROR’S LAST WORDS”

 

 

THE POLITICS INTERVIEW: TOM WATSON, “THE LONE HUNTER”

The NS political editor, George Eaton, meets the campaigning Labour MP Tom Watson ahead of the summer recess to discuss his role in securing an inquiry into the recent child abuse scandal and in leading the revolt against the new “emergency” surveillance bill. He also shares his thoughts on the jailing of Andy Coulson and describes his own unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch (Cameron’s “missed opportunity” to renew the Conservatives).

Watson expresses his growing frustration with frequent off-the-record briefings by disloyal shadow cabinet ministers. But he hopes that Alan Johnson will return to the front line, and insists that Nick Clegg would have to step down from leading the Liberal Democrats as a condition of a future Labour-Lib Dem coalition.

On Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet critics:

He later turns his fire on those shadow cabinet ministers he regards as having been disloyal to Ed Miliband. “The frustrating thing is that there have been some shadow cabinet members who have briefed off the record and said some critical things about Ed. That’s the most cowardly thing in the world. If they feel very strongly about things, go to the back benches and speak out – that’s what I did. Don’t use the cover of anonymity to make attacks on a leader.”

On his hope that Alan Johnson will return:

After David Cameron’s Night of the Long Knives, does he think Ed Miliband should carry out his own reshuffle? “I think he’s got another reshuffle in him if he wants to do it this side of the election. There are certainly people who could really help us,” he says. Watson adds his voice to those calling for Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, to return to the front line. “Johnson is one of those unique MPs, he’s got huge reach and is very level-headed. I don’t agree with him politically on a lot of things, though over the years he’s begun to convince me of the case for proportional representation in a way that he would be as surprised of as I am. But people like Alan could be really effective as we go up to polling day.”

Labour could work with the Lib Dems but Nick Clegg would have to go:

“It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Ed to try and form a government [with the] Lib Dems; I think it would be almost impossible for him to get political permission to do that if Nick Clegg was leading the party. It wouldn’t be right that Nick Clegg, who forged the coalition programme that had been rejected at the election, was sharing power for a second term with a different prime minister. But I would imagine that, though Nick Clegg would deny this now, he would know that.”

On Andy Coulson (“I felt sorry for him”):

How did he feel on the day Andy Coulson, the ex-NoW editor, was jailed? “On a personal level, I felt sorry for him,” is his somewhat surprising answer. “It’s over for him; you’ve got to take responsibility for your actions.”

He adds that the fundamental issue is still there, “that Rupert Murdoch owns too much of Britain’s media. If what we read in the papers is right, he wants more, and you can only stop that concentration of power with rules to limit media ownership.”

On Louise Mensch and why her departure was Cameron’s “missed opportunity”:

It was as a member of the [Commons] culture, media and sport select committee that Watson formed an unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who later left parliament for the US. “I liked her because she was a character,” he says. “She went off and became a columnist for Rupert Murdoch, which didn’t look great. But I admired her because she was comfortable in her own skin, she had her own opinions, which she wasn’t frightened to articulate, and she was tough. What a missed opportunity for Cameron – she felt so uncomfortable with the political system that she resigned midterm with all that ability. There’s something going wrong with politics if people like Louise Mensch feel it’s not for them.”

 

JEREMY BOWEN: FROM GAZA TO DAMASCUS, THE MIDDLE EAST IS ON FIRE

The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, reports from Gaza where, he argues, “trouble has been brewing between Israel and Hamas for months” and was in evidence well before the kidnap and murder of four Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. Military action now will merely deepen the conflict, he predicts:

Only a proper peace deal will make Palestinians and Israelis safer. There is no chance of one right now, which means more small wars, which will eventually become much bigger ones.

Bowen says he saw no evidence of Hamas preventing civilians from leaving the Gaza City suburb of Shejaiya or using them as human shields, contrary to claims by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu:

My impression of Hamas is different from Netanyahu’s. I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields. I saw men from Hamas on street corners, keeping an eye on what was happening. They were local people and everyone knew them, even the young boys.

Bowen acknowledges the effect of rocket attacks by Palestinians on the Israeli side, but argues that “it is wrong to suggest that Israeli civilians near Gaza suffer as much as Palestinians”:

It is much, much worse in Gaza. I defy anyone with an ounce of human feeling not to feel the same after ten minutes in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital with wounded and dying civilians. In the mortuary, it’s so overcrowded that the bodies of two children are crammed on to a single shelf. One day, they had only found enough of the remains of six women and children to fill a single stretcher.

The whole of the Middle East is on fire, Bowen writes, and the region is more troubled than he has ever seen it in nearly 25 years of reporting:

Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus. The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it
since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out.

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: WHY LABOUR FEARS VICTORY

In this week’s Politics Column, George Eaton explains why, as its poll lead holds, Labour is split between those who fear defeat and those who fear victory:

When I told one Conservative MP that Miliband believes the press onslaught against him is motivated by the fear that he will win, not the belief that he will lose, he replied: “That’s exactly right.” The public admission by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he is planning for negotiations with Labour in a hung parliament offered an insight into the calculations that many Liberal Democrats are making in private. Others are preparing to flee Westminster.

All three main parties “fear what victory would bring”, Eaton argues:

For the Tories, it would mean an in/out referendum on the EU that could split the party as no issue has since the repeal of the Corn Laws. For Labour, it could mean inheriting a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse: a bankrupt NHS, an imploding housing market (forcing a precipitous rise in interest rates) and a prison system at full capacity, combined with the requirement to accelerate the deepest public-service cuts since the Second World War, or raise taxes by an equivalent amount. “Sometimes I worry more about winning than losing,” one Labour frontbencher tells me.

 

JOHN SIMPSON ON BOKO HARAM AND NIGERIA’S LOST GIRLS

John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, joins the New Statesman as a contributor this week with a letter from the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Simpson describes how the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents has “run into the swamp of Nigerian politics”. So far, the attempts by President Goodluck Jonathan to secure their release have proved fruitless:

If Goodluck Jonathan can’t free the girls, and he can’t do a deal with Boko Haram to get them released, what does that leave for him? Nothing. And nothing is what has been happening for three months now. To put it at its crudest, the president and his government must be hoping that the world will simply forget about the girls. We can be sure that this is something that pains him, as a father, as a politician and as a devout Christian; there are suggestions that Boko Haram is forcibly converting the girls, most of whom are Christians, to become Muslims, and that it has already handed over some of them to its fighters to be their “wives”. However, Goodluck has a job to do, and that job is to try to keep Nigeria together.

 

ROWAN WILLIAMS ON DYLAN THOMAS AND TEENAGE MEMORIES

Rowan Williams reflects on The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas, a new study of the writer by Hilly Janes. The former archbishop of Canterbury argues that Thomas has been “half stifled by his own mythography” and suffers from being labelled as a “poet of adolescence”. Williams recalls earnest adolescent pastiches of the “obsessively sensual” poet “in the back of school notebooks”:

For so many male readers, he is the quintessential poet of adolescence. How many of us were convinced on reading him that this was what poetry was really like, heady, incantatory, obsessively sensual? How many proceeded to write terrible imitations of him in the back of school notebooks? That is what people wince over: the young Dylan, with his off-the-peg bohemianism, his obscure, symbolically coded resentments, his wild and frustrated sexuality, can look, to the literary (male) adult, like the fearful caricature of a half-forgotten self. And that embarrassment reinforces the element of caricature in depictions of him. Even the recent BBC drama about his last days in New York, with its splendid performance from Tom Hollander, reached for the mythological dressing-up trunk.

 

JACQUI SMITH’S DIARY

As the former home secretary and Labour MP Jacqui Smith prepares for a summer of caravanning in Wales, she looks forward to the days of Tory and Lib Dem all-women shortlists:

As the dust settles on the reshuffle, it’s clear that there should be no let-up in the work to gain more equal gender representation in parliament and government. The appointment of two new women cabinet ministers, though welcome, still takes the total in the cabinet to only less than a quarter. In the Labour Women’s Network, we continue to train women to stand for parliament, but self-congratulation from any party on female representation is premature while we languish at 58th in the international league table – with Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Tunisia among those doing better than us. One answer is clear. Why do women MPs make up a third of Labour, while the Tories have less than 16 per cent and the Lib Dems only one in eight? It’s because Labour uses all-women shortlists. In recent weeks, both Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke have supported their use for their own parties. Why not just get on with it?

****

This summer, I will holiday in my caravan in north-west Wales. With little mobile-phone signal, this was a sanctuary in my ministerial years – though I did manage to speak to two prime ministers standing on a rock at the top of the site where you can just about get a connection. I was not the only caravanning minister: Margaret Beckett loved hers, too. Appropriately, as foreign secretary, she had a touring caravan that she took round Europe, while as home secretary I had a static caravan and stayed at home.

 

JOHN LLOYD: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

The QI creator John Lloyd is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. With his reputation as a comedy writer, Lloyd unsurprisingly identifies laughter as one of the keys to our humanity:

Laughter, I would say, is another thing that makes us human, and being able to make people laugh is a high calling. Watching Bill Bailey live on stage always makes me proud to be a member of the same species. But why do we laugh? I’ve been in comedy for 40 years and I still don’t know.

 

Plus

 

Uri Dromi: Why Israel should invest in Gaza and offer its people economic hope

Laurie Penny on Gaza: It’s not anti-Semitic to say “not in my name”

Philip Maughan meets Geoff Dyer, the genre-smashing writer and great critic of academics

Peter Wilby on Tulisa and the “fake sheikh” and why Gove had to go

“Strong Man”, a new short story by Helen Simpson

Frances Wilson: Caitlin Moran’s first novel should be renamed How to Make a Fast Buck

Michael Prodger on Picasso, Matisse, Montmartre and modernism

“Peace”, a First World War archive poem by Robert Graves

On Location: Will Self on why visits to Florence will always be a smack in the face

Tom Humberstone sketches out his summer holiday reading list

Tom Clark: Why Labour is fast losing the argument on welfare reform

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares his latest Westminster gossip

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder