London ~ Sunday August 28 2011, Page 1
Labour's new line of attack on David Cameron revealed
Secret document outlines party's plan to launch campaign to brand prime minister as 'recognisably rightwing' leader
By Daniel Boffey
David Cameron’s priorities have changed and the party is moving to the right, according to the leaked Labour document. (Olivia Harris/Reuters)
Labour is developing a new strategy to paint David Cameron as an old-style, traditional Tory, according to confidential documents obtained by the Observer, as the parties prepare to do battle during the coming conference season. The opposition believes the prime minister has abandoned the centre ground in recent months to adopt a more orthodox conservative stance on issues such as law and order, immigration and welfare.
They are now set to launch a concerted campaign to brand Cameron as a "recognisably rightwing" leader in a move that will inevitably inflame political debate. The creation of the strategy follows reports last month that Cameron had polled negatively for the first time, with more people saying that the prime minister was doing a bad job than those backing him.
"Like first world war generals, we must avoid making all our preparations for the last battle rather than the next," the leaked document says. "Indeed, the very terrain on which we will fight is changing."
The two-and-half-page paper written by the MP Shaun Woodward, a former Tory frontbencher and now head of Labour's anti-Tory attack unit, and circulated among senior Labour officials, lays bare the areas where the opposition now believes Cameron is vulnerable.
It asserts that the government's recent rhetoric and policy offer a chance to frame Cameron as a traditional Tory prime minister, arguing that there is clear evidence that the party has "moved rapidly rightwards" in response to major events.
In the wake of the riots, Cameron vowed to confront a "moral collapse" in British society while urging the courts to hand out tough sentences to those involved. Earlier this year he claimed that uncontrolled immigration threatened communities and their way of life in comments that his own business secretary, Vince Cable, said "risked inflaming extremism".
The document further claims the prime minister has moved away from pre-election priorities of being trusted on the NHS and the environment, both crucial areas of the "compassionate conservatism" that Cameron made central to his image.
Woodward warns, however, that while there are opportunities for Labour there are "significant political risks if Labour fails to handle the change with alacrity, strength and sensitivity". There are fears that some of the rightwing rhetoric employed by the government in recent months may chime with large sections of the public, as it did in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Senior figures in the party have also conceded that they have struggled to land a blow on Cameron, who is regarded as a skilful manipulator of his image.
But in the document, which is likely to be presented to the full shadow cabinet in the coming weeks, Woodward appeals to the leadership to reassess the focus of its attacks.
"At the last election we faced a Conservative party (and a Conservative leader in David Cameron) whose strategic goal was to decontaminate their brand, intending to present themselves as reformed, modern, centrist and pragmatic," it says. "Repositioning on issues like the NHS and the environment was used as evidence of the emergence of a 'compassionate conservatism' – a phrase first used by George W Bush prior to his election as president. Cameron was effective in promoting a perception his party had changed."
But it adds: "Of course, in discussing how we frame out messages on the Conservatives it is important that anything we say is credible. We should not ignore there has been limited change on issues such as their attitude to gay rights and an attempt to embrace other aspects of a progressive social liberal agenda.
"But here is the paradox: whilst the Tories made changes before the election – intended to convince the public they were compassionate – since the election (and especially in the last few months) the Tories have taken major strides back towards their ideological roots. Buffeted by events, there is a growing incoherence between 'liberal conservatism' and the increasingly shrill language the Tories are using as they vacate the centre ground."
It is also claimed that the focus on markets by health secretary Andrew Lansley, Michael Gove, the education secretary, and universities minister David Willetts is "very distant" from the voters' aspirations for their public services.
"Analysis of Tory party policy, carried out over the summer, convincingly demonstrates the Conservatives are shifting to a distinctly rightwing strategy, in both their chosen focus on issues and their solutions," it says. "Cameron clearly recognises some of the danger he faces in his repositioning. He is still seeking to separate himself out from a toxic Tory brand and has assumed a presidential role and style. But the Tories have become far less worried about inhabiting the centre ground they once cultivated and more worried about any perception of appearing weak.
"They do not appear to be seeking long-term solutions to Britain's real challenges and problems and Cameron himself now appears to be a recognisably rightwing prime minister."
London ~ Sunday 28 February 2010, page 40
Murdoch's hunger for power is a looming threat to democracy
News International's dismissal of the parliamentary report on the News of the World phone scandal just shows their contempt for the law, MPs and other media
By Henry Porter
One of the strangest themes of Rupert Murdoch's long relationship with Britain is his habit of expressing the pain of a persecuted outsider. It's a peculiar trait for someone who makes and breaks governments, who can ignore parliament and bypass British tax laws.
For as long as most of us can remember, this dynast posing as an anti-establishment newcomer, this patriotic Australian who became a citizen of the United States, this family-values diehard who went off with another woman, has been running things behind the scenes. We are used to his power and sardonic disdain for Britain but last week a line was crossed when Murdoch's News International dismissed a parliamentary committee's report on the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World by saying that the all-party membership of the committee had formed some kind of a conspiracy.
The accusation of persecution is typical – a gangster reflex made in the knowledge that the company can't be touched by MPs, or the media. Apart from the BBC, the FT, the Independent and the Guardian, the Observer's sister paper, which investigated these allegations of phone hacking and £1m paid in hush money, the media has remained shamefully silent. The hacking operation and use of inquiry agents, which for legal reasons has yet to be fully disclosed, is bad enough but the company's defiance represents a sharp new humiliation because it forces us to acknowledge the decline of national resilience and impotence of our institutions.
Even a paper such as the Daily Mail seems to tremble at the thought of what the 78-year-old mogul might do, and it is no exaggeration to say that what we've seen since the culture, media and sport select committee began investigating "the near industrial scale" of the hacking is the suppression by many news organisations of a story that Downing Street declared was "absolutely breathtaking and an extreme cause for concern". This is a matter of grave public interest.
It is inconceivable that any agency, party or commercial concern in Britain would be able get away with spying on the military, royals, celebrities, sports figures and government ministers and then react with the what the report identified as "collective amnesia" and "deliberate obfuscation" – in other words the default response of a crime family. The all-party members of Tory John Whittingdale's committee could not have been clearer. They say: "We strongly condemn this behaviour… News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what has really occurred." It is significant that they also criticised the metropolitan police for not broadening their 2006 investigation into Clive Goodman, the News of the World journalist who was jailed and caused the departure of the then editor Andy Coulson.
You may well ask why such large-scale criminal activity fell victim to what approximates to Balkan lassitude. The money sloshing around, the scores of important people hacked, the dormant police files, the two dozen journalists who may have made illegal requests and the private detectives, one of whom was employed by Andy Coulson at the News of the World after a seven-year jail sentence for a serious crime against a vulnerable woman, add up to more than a story of overzealous tabloid reporting. The whole thing stinks.
The affair becomes much more worrying when you consider the way the Murdoch organisation has lined up behind David Cameron to maintain privileged access to No 10. No doubt there was a sense of timely conferment among Conservatives when the Sun announced it was deserting Labour after 12 years and backing Cameron instead. Rebekah Brooks, the News International chief executive and Cameron's neighbour in Oxfordshire, was almost certainly as happy as her former colleague Andy Coulson, now David Cameron's communications director, who still has quite a few questions to answer on all this.
So media power and political power achieve an ever greater degree of merger, just as in Italy, but let us be quite clear that Murdoch's primary interest is commercial, as it has been ever since he bought into the News of the World 41 years ago. Already we see the pressures that the Murdoch family will bring to bear on David Cameron if he becomes prime minister. On Friday the Times, which now barely disguises its pro-Sky agenda, ran an editorial on the BBC's cuts, accusing its websites of " dumping free content on to markets where its rivals have no public subsidy". The phrase bears an uncanny resemblance to James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh last year when he talked about the BBC "dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market." The editorial read as if the Times editor James Harding had been taking dictation.
Neither James mentions the dumping of free Murdoch news on the market by the Sky website, which is just as likely to put local journalists out of work as the BBC, but the more important point is that the Times shows that it has already become part of the corporate campaign against what is, despite all its faults, the greatest public broadcaster in the world.
Murdoch's agenda has never been more naked, and if the Conservatives win, News International will have a government that feels in its debt, as well as an important ally on the inside – Andy Coulson. We may very soon be back to the days under Blair when the News of the World executives went into No 10 and drafted legislation on paedophiles, only this time the BBC and broadcasting regulators will be in News International's sights. As the business secretary Lord Mandelson said after the Sun dumped Labour: "There are some in the commercial sector who believe that the future of British media would be served by cutting back the role of the media regulator. They take this view because they want to commandeer more space and income for themselves and because they want to maintain their iron grip on pay-TV… They also want to erode the commitment to impartiality. In other words, to fill British airwaves with more Fox-style news." We should pay attention to what he says – he understands the beast very well.
Given what is known about the practices of Murdoch's print journalists, most people would regard the extension of News International's influence in TV as a very bad thing, which is precisely why the company acted to try to cover up the scandal. A total of £700,000 has been paid to Graham Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers' Association. This is to say nothing of the £792,000 paid out to a sports journalist because of alleged bullying by Andy Coulson.
But this is scuttlebutt in comparison to the spectacle of News International getting away with outright contempt for our law and for parliament. Berlusconi's Italy is not such a distant nightmare.
London ~ Friday, 4 March 2011
David Cameron’s assault on the homeless is Dickensian
By Johann Hari
The Tory council believes he is "encouraged" here by the free food, I tell him. He looks down at his sandwich and asks softly: "What planet are they on?"
Earlier this week, the Tory-run Westminster Council, one of the richest in Britain, announced a ban on sleeping on the streets, or feeding anybody who does. They say giving Steven food only “encourages” him to be homeless. So on Tuesday night, I went on one of the soon-to-be-criminalized soup runs. I walked around the neon warrens of the West End – through the theatre-throngs, and past the fancy fashion stores – with two volunteers from the charity the Simon Community.
Cynthia Jameson and Mark Jones know by name all the homeless people they give soup, sandwiches and coffee to. They know their anxieties, their foibles, and their jokes. There’s Steven. There’s Greg, who believes he has discovered a cure for malaria, but the UN has stolen and destroyed it. There’s Andrew, shivering with heroin-withdrawal. There’s the Chinese man who can’t speak English but smiles with gratitude as he shovels five sugars into his tea. And, these days, there are new faces every time they come. Phil is a 27 year-old who has only been out on the streets for three weeks. “I worked in construction for twelve years, but this recession is so bad now there’s just no work,” he tells me. “I couldn’t pay my rent, so I got chucked out. I never thought this would happen to me. I’m so ashamed.” I tell him the Tory council believes he is “encouraged” here by the free food. He looks down at his sandwich and asks softly: “What planet are they on?”
Cynthia and I pause outside the Covent Garden Opera House. With the light reflecting in her eyes, she shakes her head and says: “How can they make it a crime to show kindness like this?”
Westminster Council is taking this action pre-emptively because they know that rough sleeping is about to sky-rocket as a direct result of David Cameron’s policies. To understand why, you have to go back a few decades. One of the symbols of Thatcher’s Britain was the Cardboard City that suddenly appeared in every town. But then they largely vanished. It wasn’t by accident. The last Labour government did some appalling things, but the homeless charities agree they had at least one remarkable achievement: they brought the number of rough sleepers crashing down by a startling 75 percent. Why? The specialists agree: Labour set up a dedicated Rough Sleepers Unit, and lavished money on it. Homeless shelters became well-staffed with professionals who had the time to listen, and the money to get homeless people the training and support they needed to start living a decent life again.
Now all that is being dismantled. David Cameron is slashing the money that is given to local councils, who have the legal responsibility to house the homeless – and the result is entirely predictable. Cornwall is slashing its spending on the homeless by 40 percent. Southwark is slashing it by 50 percent. Nottingham is slashing it by 70 percent. Across Britain, services for the homeless are closing. The ones that remain will have a skeleton staff, opening and shutting the hostel doors but not providing the long-term support that actually gets people off the streets. I couldn’t find a single person in the field who believes Cameron’s claim that volunteers will make up the difference – or even get a tenth of the way there.
This is being done at a time when the number of people needing those hostels and that support is set to sky-rocket. Some 90,000 single tenants and 82,000 families are facing eviction from their homes because of Housing Benefit cuts. Some will end up on friends’ sofas, or in emergency B&Bs. But a lot will end up on the streets. More and more people will be scrambling for fewer, feebler shelters – and all the Tories can think to do is try to ban people from feeding the victims. Their only hope is to turn our media into a Murdochracy, where the real news will be drowned out by an orgy of blaming the victims. Even people unmoved by basic human sympathy can surely see that all this is a recipe for a crime explosion.
James Cummings knows better than anyone what Cameron’s policies will mean. He was a manager in pubs and hotels all his life, but after his marriage broke down, he found himself glugging his way into severe alcoholism. He eventually lost his job in 2008 and ended up under a bridge in Elephant and Castle. He was found by a government outreach worker. She linked him up with a government-funded charity who took him in, got him a hostel bed, and got him training in IT. “Now I’ve got a good job and I’m paying taxes,” he tells me with justified pride, “but Cameron? is cutting to ribbons all the services that turned my life around. The hostel that took me in has closed now, and the charity that got me my training is facing huge cuts [in its grants].” So what would have happened if you had become homeless this year, in Cameron-Land? “I’d still be out there on the streets,” he says. In fact, it’s unlikely he would have lived to see this day: the average life expectancy for a homeless man is 42, and he is 50.
None of this is happening out of financial necessity. All of these cuts to services for the homeless could have been stopped if Cameron had moved one figure on a spreadsheet: if he had taken the £1bn in taxpayers’ money paid in bonuses to RBS bankers, and ringfenced it for the homeless instead.
At the end of the soup run, I watched Steven walk off into the darkness, trying once again to outpace his grief – and I glimpsed the skyline of the City of London glinting in the distance. The people in those towers caused this economic crisis. They crashed the global economy. But they are richer than ever, partying like it’s 1999 with our money – while the chance of Steven getting a bed for the night, a bowl of soup in his stomach, or a path back to a normal life is being stripped away. Why is David Cameron punishing him for their crimes?
Dublin ~ Wednesday July 13 2011
Despite everything, Murdoch is going to get his way -- again
By Kevin Myers
TO judge from the manner in which various British columnists have been dealing with Rupert Murdoch and his chief executive Rebekah Brooks, they apparently think that News International will emerge battered but unbroken from the 'News of the World' phone-hacking scandal.
And what journalist wants to be excluded forever from the possibility of employment by Sky News, 'The Sunday Times', 'The Times', 'The Sun', 'The Sun on Sunday' -- or whatever confection replaces 'The News of the World'?
Such exclusion would be a particularly unappealing prospect for these poor hacks as they toil within the galleys of a globally declining newspaper market, knowing either that their ships might sink or their skippers may throw them over board. Only the foolhardy or the brave would denounce the nearby argosy, SS Murdochia, sound as an iceberg, on which they might one day seek refuge.
Moreover, there's been a sisters-together rallying behind News International's CEO, Rebekah Brooks, who was famously arrested on suspicion of assaulting her then husband Ross Kemp. Her fellow media haquette Janet Street-Porter told a sympathetic BBC 'Women's Hour' that her friend Rebekah was made of strong stuff and would come through this trying time, a finer and better person. Quite so: and pray tell me, please, of the reaction on BBC 'Women's Hour' if such allegations had been made about Ross Kemp?
Perhaps it was a combination of self-interest and sisters together which explains the astonishingly toxic bilge that appeared in the British editions of 'The Daily Mail' on Monday. Both Beth Hale and Melanie Philips attacked the comedian Steve Coogan, the actor Hugh Grant and the Formula One impresario Max Mosley, who have recently all been loud in their loathing of 'The News of the World'.
Hale disparagingly referred to Coogan and Grant as "middle-aged" -- a term which also applies to Rebekah Brooks, although in these Elysian days of gender equality, happily no one, of course, would ever dream of making such an ageist and sexist remark about a woman.
Max Mosley, a Formula One chief, was denounced by both Philips and Hale for his taste in sado-masochistic sex. Steve Coogan's crime was -- according to Philips -- "sexual excess", which is something that Philips herself is unlikely ever to have encountered. And Hugh Grant's episode with a prostitute was, of course, sanctimoniously recycled. (I might add here that all the accusations concerned activities between consenting adults).
Philips puffed: "The notion that people who use prostitutes, indulge in sado-masochistic orgies or engage in serial lewd behaviour should become the moral arbiters of the nation is clearly ridiculous."
No doubt it would have been, if only Philips or Hale had also managed to make a single mention of the names Murdoch and Brooks in their gleeful denunciations of the sexual pasts of these three relatively powerless men. But of course, they didn't.
Indeed, one can scan the entire range of bylined columnar furlongs about News International in non-NI British newspapers and, with the honourable exception of 'The Guardian' -- which has had a particularly good war so far -- and 'The Independent', one finds no critical mention of Brooks and Murdoch.
Why? Is it possibly because they are figures of awesome, even global, media power? These gallant columnists clearly don't intend to make enemies of the skippers of a cruise-liner on whose sun deck they might one day hope to be lolling.
They therefore conveniently ignore the abominable possibility that loyal lieutenants of that same cruise liner had hacked into the mobile phone of a missing teenage girl, (who had, in fact, been murdered) and into the phones of servicemen killed in action in Afghanistan, which is as non-consensual as you can gave get. Thus a tale nearly as old naked self-interest: when in doubt, shoot the messenger.
YET in a way, News International is less a ship than a surreal Shakespearian composite, an Elsinore on acid. Rupert Murdoch is a Richard III, capering grimly on the battlements of his castle and drowning the occasional innocents in a butt of Wapping Malmsey. But suddenly, he appears as a genial old Lear, rewarding the loyalty of his lovely daughter Cordelia: yes, Rebekah Brooks, who -- miraculously -- also resembles a winsome Ophelia, wide-eyed and floating red tresses. Next moment, she stalks the stone corridors like Lady Macbeth, garrotting sentries. And lo! Here comes David Cameron, who thinks he is Henry V at Agincourt, but in reality is a sleekly podgy Juliet in a schoolboy production at Eton, opposite a Romeo played with reptilian bravura by James Murdoch, Rupert's son. Enter stage left that sinister buffoon Piers Morgan, half-Iago, half-clown, bladder in one hand, a freshly sharpened bodkin in the other.
But the deeper reality of News International is actually neither ship nor Shakespeare, but Jane Goodall. It was she who observed the astonishing power of dominant males in chimpanzee society.
So what are we, but chimpanzees that talk and -- happily for NI -- occasionally read, and like any social primates, we inevitably defer to Towering Alpha-Males. Which is why, sooner or later, Rupert Murdoch, the most personally irresistible Towering Alpha Male of this era, is probably going to get his way -- AGAIN.
London ~~ Saturday 11 July 2009, page 29
Murdoch's malign influence demeans British politics
Phone-hacking is but one corner of a potent empire – just who stands to benefit from the Tories killing the TV watchdog?
By Polly Toynbee
New depths have been plumbed by Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. If the Guardian's revelations only concerned lurid journalism it would be disgraceful but not sinister. However, the way the police, the public prosecutor and judiciary appear to have prevented exposure of this industrial-scale bugging is a reminder of just how cleverly Murdoch companies manipulate officialdom.
Something else happened this week, something that again raises all too familiar questions about Murdoch's extraordinary power. The evidence is circumstantial, but you may find it quite compelling.
On 26 June Ofcom published a report into the pay-TV market. After long investigation, it concluded that Sky had a monopolistic control: its 80% of Premier League football and 100% of movies from the big Hollywood studios prevent others from entering the market, and Sky sells these rights to others at too high a price. As a competition regulator, Ofcom's job is to keep the market open. Its new ruling requires Sky to sell on its rights to all comers at some 30% less than it currently charges. BT reckons this will drop the average cost of watching top-flight football by £10 a month.
Ofcom's boldness drew an amazed intake of breath from industry players and observers. This is the first time a regulator has seriously challenged Murdoch's market power. Those who stood to gain – BT Vision, Virgin Media, Top Up TV and others were delighted their protests were so bravely answered.
Sky's chief executive replied immediately that it would challenge Ofcom using "all available legal avenues". This time, however, Ofcom is not expected to allow Sky to use the tactic of delaying regulators in the courts for years – it must comply and can appeal afterwards. The battle is on, since historically Murdoch's empire has stooped to manipulating regulators and avoiding taxes. How has he done that? By leaning hard on politicians, who – knowing only too well his dominant voice in newspapers – are frightened for their lives.
Sure enough, the next day his newspapers sharpened their knives. Here is the Sun's Fergus Shanahan: "This is the world gone mad. Ofcom, the official telly regulator, says a successful and popular firm – Sky – must be penalised for doing well … This nonsense – rewarding losers by punishing winners – is Ofcom's way of 'improving competition'. Ofcom busybodies also have the nerve to threaten to dictate what prices shareholder-owned firms like Sky can charge. That's despotic, not democratic, and it's what they do in Russia." No, what they do in Russia these days is to grant monopolies to oligarchs and that's why Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading exist to prevent it happening here.
Just 10 days later, last Monday, David Cameron made a surprise speech about quangos. His team asked the rightwing thinktank Reform to set up the event at just a few days' notice. It looked like the standard speech made by all oppositions promising cuts in "the quango state". But one astonishing new commitment stuck out, even though it was barely noticed in most reports: "Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. Its remit will be restricted to narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy." It would be knocked back to "regulating lightly". Had there been a great popular outcry calling for the demolition of Ofcom? Hardly, since this is obscure, techie stuff. So what was this all about?
Within hours of Cameron's speech, leading market analysts UBS Investment Research assessed the potential impact: "This bodes well for Sky … We believe that a lighter-touch approach would result in a far better and fairer outcome for Sky, the consumer and the pay market. This could result in a valuation of over 750p versus circa 650p under Ofcom's current proposals." In plain English, if the Conservatives come to power and abolish Ofcom, expect a £1 share price rise for Sky – worth some £1.7bn.
The timing and content of Cameron's speech may, of course, be purely coincidental. Former Murdoch man Andy Coulson may have nothing to do with it. I have no shred of evidence to the contrary. The Tories have every reason to dislike Ofcom chief Ed Richards, a former Blair adviser paid £400,000 a year. But behind the scenes the players in this drama, other companies, analysts and observers were stunned. Few dare speak for publication, fearing the wrath of the incoming Conservatives. Ofcom will not be drawn. The one bold voice was Peter Luff, Conservative chair of the business and enterprise select committee. "Ofcom is a bloody great regulator," he told me. "I believe in free markets and I'm very pro-competition. It needs powerful people."
Cameron's office says there was "no contact with News International" about Ofcom but history should not be ignored. The Murdoch press has a long record of winning pay-back from the political leaders it backs – and it has recently swung behind Cameron. In fact, it is so ordinary that too few political commentators bother to keep remarking on the malign influence this man has had on our politics for the past 30 years.
Europe has been Murdoch's one unwavering political obsession. The reason is commercial: the EU is the one regulatory power stronger than his ability to twist the arms of national politicians. EU law nearly stopped him launching Sky until Margaret Thatcher demanded a special exemption to let him start up with almost entirely US content. The one Cameron policy that sits oddly with his bid for centre-ground moderation has been his anti-EU extremism, greater than Mrs Thatcher's, marching his troops out of the influential EPP group in Brussels. Murdoch has shaped our foreign policy by using his press and his political power to inflame Europhobia.
In his memoirs, John Major counts his downfall from the day Murdoch gave him the imperial thumbs-down. Blair fawned and obeyed, right from his shocking acquiescence to the Tory 1996 Broadcasting Act, which gave Murdoch total control of the digital future (later saved by Greg Dyke bringing in Freeview). The night before the crucial Iraq war vote, virtually the entire cabinet attended Sun editor David Yelland's farewell party. Brown loses his moral compass down the back of the sofa as he courts Murdoch. All Tory and Labour leaders canoodle with the Murdoch apparat with a social desperation that demeans them and their office. This political corruption is rather more alarming than duck islands.