£3m for the Dowlers, conference memories and proper rugby new­­­­s

One is naturally pleased that the criminal acts of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World have cost him serious money, in the form of £3m
for the parents of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose phone was hacked. And nobody should underestimate the distress caused to the Dowlers by journalists they thought were friends. But this is the kind of sum that might be paid to people needing expensive lifelong care after botched medical treatment.

It far exceeds what victims of libel - who may suffer damage to their livelihoods - could expect. Can we really argue that the NoW, however deplorable its behaviour, caused the Dowlers comparable harm, which requires comparable economic recompense?

Murdoch's anxiety is not to compensate the Dowlers but to rescue the public image of himself and his company and avoid court hearings that might expose more dirt. What he is not short of is money. Brands, however, are beyond price and both News Corporation and the Murdoch family brands would suffer incalculable damage if knowledge of criminality and/or its concealment were to be revealed at the company's highest levels.

Prezza the impresser

Back in the spring, my local Labour consti­tuency party became unusually animated over whether our meagre funds could stretch to sending a delegate to the annual conference. For the first time anybody could remember, there was a contested election for the honour and privilege of being a delegate. I hope the winner won't be disappointed.

I suppose attending a conference nowadays provides the same kind of vicarious thrill as hanging around outside the Bafta awards ceremony. The role of humble constituency representatives is roughly equivalent to that of the Supreme Soviet members who used to applaud obediently through their leaders' four-hour speeches. My memories of a dozen years attending Labour conferences are mostly a blur comprising speeches by Tony Blair that seemed inspiring at the time but quite unmemorable in retrospect. Only one speech stands out: a barnstorming effort by John Prescott in the early 1990s, which swung an important vote when the result was genuinely in doubt. Unfortunately, I cannot remember what the debate was about, still less what Prescott said. Like all his speeches, it would have made no sense whatever if you read a transcript but, in the conference hall, it was persuasive and compelling, just as conference speeches by Aneurin Bevan once were. It was, I think, the last of its kind.

As delegates are no longer supposed to have minds of their own, Labour has no further use for speakers who can change their thinking.

No expense spent

Moving the conferences from seaside towns has helped party managers to marginalise delegates. Most Labour members cannot afford city-centre hotels close to the gossiping, socialising and plotting that surrounds the leadership, whereas Blackpool and Scarborough had modestly priced boarding houses within easy reach of the main action.

If nothing else, the eccentricities of such establishments provided stories you could dine out on. My own favourite concerned a small hotel in Margate where I arrived on a freezing November afternoon for a union conference. Though daylight had already faded, it was unlit except for an oil lamp by the owner's desk. He explained that his electricity tariff permitted lighting and heating only at certain hours. An elderly retainer struck matches as he guided me to my room, lighting a final match to illuminate my modest accommodation before leaving me in total darkness through which I could just discern ice on the inside of the window. "Everything all right, sir?" asked the owner cheerfully as I later stumbled downstairs. Overwhelmed by the prospect of explaining the hotel's shortcomings, I feebly replied that it was.

Career Hari-kiri?

What future for the Independent's star columnist Johann Hari, found guilty of serial plagiarism and sentenced to four months' hard labour on a journalism course? Some commentators suggest he is finished. More likely, a glittering career awaits. More than 20 years ago, the young Mazher Mahmood was dismissed from the Sunday Times for "an act of gross dishonesty". He went on to become the News of the World's highly paid "fake sheikh", widely criticised for his use of subterfuge and, following that paper's closure, promptly returned to the Sunday Times, reportedly with the retinue of researchers and bodyguards he acquired at the NoW. Then there is the case of Boris Johnson, once sacked from the Times for fabricating quotations. We all know what happened to him.

We might find it easier to judge Hari's prospects if we could read a full report of the investigation carried out for the Independent by its former editor Andreas Whittam Smith. There is talk of "regaining readers' trust". The Independent could start by trusting its readers with the evidence.

Tackle real news

Do I care that rugby players throw dwarves or grope blondes on their nights off from World Cup duty in New Zealand? No, provided both dwarves and blondes are consenting. Do I care that newspapers pictured Mike Tindall, the England centre married to Zara Phillips, leaving a nightclub with a woman who wasn't his wife? No: royalty are, by definition, public property and anybody who joins their peculiar family forfeits privacy rights. Do I care that our rugby team - guided by Martin Johnson, perhaps the greatest player in the game's history but also the worst coach - keeps playing like a bunch of malfunctioning robots? Yes, very much. Can the sports writers please stick to that?

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 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter