Gaddafi plays a straight bat, Murdoch bowls a bouncer

How the Libyan leader went by the rule book, how Rupert may get his way, and how coming out may play

Let us look into the mind of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan dictator thought that provided he gave British firms construction contracts, allowed access to oil and joined the "war on terror", our politicians would be his friends. Like several other Middle Eastern tyrants, he imprisoned, tortured and murdered his opponents. But that has always been permissible as long as the opponents are called Islamists.

So, Gaddafi reasons, if his people are in revolt, he need only say they've all suddenly become Islamists, or, if they're not Islamists, al-Qaeda must have drugged them. Shooting and bombing the rebels is, to borrow a familiar phrase, "the right thing to do". After all, the west did a great deal of bombing and shooting when it detected Islamists in Afghanistan and decided Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda. Only the other day, Iraqi security forces, on behalf of a government that the west created, shot unarmed demonstrators and killed 29 people without a peep of protest from British politicians. They must have been Islamists, too.

What is the poor man's reward for following the rule book so carefully? Not only is he told by David Cameron to "go now", he also gets a nagging phone call from his old mucker Tony Blair, telling him to "step back, stop this constant boxing in of yourself, this sort of last-stand mentality". Peter Mandelson seems to have lost the phone number for his friend Saif Gaddafi, the dictator's son, but, he tells Andrew Marr on the BBC, if he'd had "a couple of minutes" on the blower, he would have explained to Saif that he had been "very clumsy and ham-fisted". Which, I suppose, is one way of putting it.

The Gaddafis must be baffled. What have they done wrong? The whole family may be mad - but their logic is impeccable.

Victory for votes

One would hope that, given their record in the Middle East and the distrust in which they are held among Muslims, western politicians might find this a good moment to shut up and attend quietly to their fiscal deficits. But no, they threaten unspecified forms of military intervention in Libya. It is not, readers will appreciate, in my nature to be cynical. But one is bound to note that Barack Obama faces an election campaign next year while Cameron, as cuts hit home, is likely to experience levels of public unpopularity similar to those recorded for Margaret Thatcher before Argentina invaded the Falklands. Lest we forget, approval ratings for Thatcher's government were below 30 per cent for 18 months before the Falklands war. After victory, they stayed above 40 per cent for two years.

Rupert and friends

Any day now, we are likely to hear that once again Rupert Murdoch has got his way. Reports suggest he has agreed to hive off Sky News into a trust, which will be financed by his News Corp but independent of it. That should allow him to take full control of BSkyB without reference to the Competition Commission.

There are two problems. First, what "independent" means to Murdoch isn't what it means to most of us. If the trust structure stops him or his children talking directly to Sky News editors, he will bend the ears of the trust members themselves and, if they are not attentive, remind them where the money comes from.

Second, he will still be able to bundle up subscriptions to his newspapers with subscriptions to Sky. Though the proposed BSkyB deal would nominally maintain plurality of news provision, it would allow him to strengthen his dominance in the newspaper market.

Coalition ministers will not bother about that. They want to resume their cosy relationship with Murdoch, whereby he tells them what
to do and they can rely on his papers for pro-government propaganda.

Another Hamster's wheels

The most dangerous man in the government - in the sense that his actions may lead to deaths and injuries - is Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary. Immediately on taking office, he announced an end to the "war on motorists" and stopped financing speed cameras. The AA accused him of creating "a road-safety policy void" but Hammond has a clear policy, which is to reduce safety. In a Sunday Times interview, he says he will be doing "a pretty rigorous cost-benefit analysis" on the motorway speed limit and will probably increase it to 80mph. In other words, we can tolerate a few more deaths if higher speeds contribute to "efficiency". We may as well have the other Hammond as transport minister - the one who presents the BBC's Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson.

Gay for play

I shall watch the progress of the Surrey and England cricketer Steven Davies, who has come out as gay, with interest. A few years ago, Davies, now 24, was regarded as the most outstanding wicketkeeper-batsman of his generation. But he has played only 13 matches for England so far (none of them Tests) and, earmarked to open the batting in the current World Cup, was abruptly jettisoned from the one-day team before it began.
We are assured that Davies's sexuality had nothing to do with his omission. Equally, we are told cricket is free of racism. I don't doubt the good intentions of cricket's players and coaches in either case. Yet, in the past 40 years, Nasser Hussain and, briefly, Monty Panesar were the only non-white players who established a regular place in the England team, being easily outnumbered by exiled white South Africans including Matt Prior, who replaced Davies in the World Cup party. Somehow, non-whites never seemed sufficiently comfortable with England to perform at their best. I hope Davies and other gay players fare better.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle