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24 February 2021

First Thoughts: Australia’s Facebook status, No 10’s First Lady, and Tory killer motorways

It's obvious that Rupert Murdoch is lurking in the shadows as the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison confronts Big Tech. 

By Peter Wilby

A right-wing Australian government proposes a law to make Google and Facebook pay for content they now rip off from newspapers. A free press would be saved and democracy would flourish. In retaliation, Facebook temporarily blocks all news from its Australian platform, a move widely denounced as an attempt to bully a democracy.

That’s the account served up to us and, if you suspect something is wrong with it, you would be right. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, may be taking on two corporate giants, but he is doing so on behalf of another corporate giant, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which accounts for more than half of all Australian newspaper circulation. Murdoch’s papers helped Morrison to an unexpected election victory in 2019. The new law is the reward. Google, after threatening to withdraw its search engine from Australia, made a last-minute licensing deal with Murdoch and other big publishers. Facebook is moving down the same road. A historic victory for journalism will be celebrated.

But don’t expect much money to go on journalism that exposes corporate and political abuses. In the Murdoch empire particularly, the licensing proceeds are more likely to subsidise right-wing populist propaganda. As for independent local papers and magazines, which suffer most from Google and Facebook gobbling their digital advertising revenues, they have neither the resources nor lobbying clout to negotiate similar deals.

[See also: After U-turning in Australia, Facebook faces bigger battles elsewhere]

Carrie’s whispers

Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s fiancée, having already seen off Dominic Cummings and his sidekick Lee Cain, is now accused of forcing out Oliver Lewis, an adviser on keeping the Union together. The Bow Group, a Tory think tank, wants an inquiry into Symonds’s “unelected and unaccountable role”.

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But one can hardly expect a prime minister to be uninfluenced by the opinions of the person he lives with. If anything, Symonds, who is apparently more liberal than the average Tory minister, is a good thing, as were many of her “First Lady” predecessors in both Britain and the US.

Clementine Churchill was said to be a liberalising influence on her husband and Cherie Blair apparently leaned further to the left than Tony Blair. Eleanor Roosevelt pressed for FDR’s New Deal to address the needs of black Americans; Hillary Clinton produced a plan for healthcare reform; Jackie Kennedy advocated a nuclear test ban treaty and more support for the arts. Let’s hope Symonds follows those role models.

[See also: Commons Confidential: Carre On Downing Street]

Anti-Dilyn briefing

Most readers who start newspaper articles never get to the end. But for news features, which usually begin by telling me what I already know, I start at the end and rarely get to the beginning. A Mail on Sunday spread on Downing Street factions, involving Symonds, her allegedly incontinent pet and many other characters, concluded with “a Tory source” saying: “Let’s hope Dom gets a new job soon so he stops… briefing against a defenceless dog.” The reporter added: “Mr Cummings declined to comment.” No need to read further.

Fast lane to death

Smart motorways had a record 14 fatalities in 2019, one for every 17 miles, the Sunday Times reports. Who launched “all lane running” and “dynamic hard shoulder running”, where the shoulder comes into force only at busy times? Though Labour initiated experiments, Philip Hammond, as transport minister in 2010-11, approved large-scale expansion. He regarded road safety as a drag on the economy and wanted to increase the motorway speed limit to 80mph.

It is widely accepted that the 2010-15 coalition’s austerity contributed to a rise in mortality rates. But never forget that the Tories have other ways of killing us off.

Royal left foot

If Prince Harry wants fully to sever his connections with the monarchy, he can do it very simply. He can convert to the Roman Catholic Church for just one minute. He will then officially be “deemed to be dead” and the line of succession to the throne will pass over him without affecting his children. I am not making this up. Jacob Rees-Mogg explained it to MPs in 2013. 

[See also: First thoughts: Meghan Markle, the future of the NHS and how the Tories abandoned small business]

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks