Boy, 3, died from meningitis after being refused doctor’s appointment and instead sent home with pian relief prescription
A toddler died from meningitis three days after he was turned away from a medical centre to see a doctor, an NHS inquiry found.
The mother of three-year-old Obed-Edom Bans was later phoned by a nurse, who instead prescribed the children’s medicine Calpol and antibiotics, even though he had an emergency card as a sickle-cell sufferer.
He soon became seriously ill and three days later was rushed from his home in New Addington, Croydon, to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London, where he died from meningitis in October last year.
The NHS report said: ‘If the child had been seen by a doctor he may have been referred immediately to hospital as he had sickle cell disease and a sudden onset of fever. ‘Nurse M didn’t take an appropriate history or access relevant information about the existing illness.’
Since the incident, the nurse has been ordered to be supervised and take up extra training, but remains employed.
Obed’s mother Akua Bans, 46, told the Daily Mirror: ‘His temperature was very high. It was obvious something was wrong. ‘They could have saved him. Obed loved everybody and everybody loved him.’
Obed’s father, Kwadwo Danquah, 45, continued: ‘The nurse never asked questions. She should be fired.’
Health officials in Croydon, South London, launched an inquiry into Obed’s death last November. A spokesman for NHS Croydon said at the time: ‘We are treating this case as a serious untoward incident.’
The boy’s family had taken Obed to Fieldway Medical Centre in New Addington on October 19 last year, after his temperature rose and he began shivering. But staff could not make him an appointment for seven days.
Mrs Bans said: ‘It was obvious something was wrong, but they would not see him – even though I was showing his emergency card. ‘If he was checked that day, they could have saved him, but he died before the appointment they gave him.’
She added that a nurse phoned later to say they could issue a Calpol prescription, but they ‘still would not see him.’ Three days later, Obed, who had a twin brother Benjamin, was found unconscious at his New Addington home.
He was rushed by ambulance to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, but died there on October 23. A post mortem found he died from meningitis.
Amelia Lyons, a spokeswoman for NHS Croydeon said in November: ‘NHS Croydon wishes to extend their deepest sympathy to the family of three-year-old Obed-Edom Bans following his sudden death last month.’
The rod has been spared for far too long
Allowing British teachers even the lightest touch of physical force will improve discipline
Shockingly, nearly 1,000 pupils in England are suspended for serious disorder every school day. Bad behaviour in schools is a problem that has never been tackled. Now, at last, the Government is trying to do something about it, by giving teachers more powers to use “reasonable force” to control unruly pupils.
Even the most knowledgeable teacher in the world is useless if he or she cannot control classes. All that expertise is wasted if pupils aren’t listening; or worse, if they are rioting. Yet this seems to be the case in too many schools. Indeed, two-thirds of teachers admit that serious disorder is forcing fellow teachers out of the profession.
Under these new guidelines, teachers, who until now have often felt alone and helpless when faced with the need to restrain out of control pupils, will be able to use sensible physical force to discipline them and help stop fights and injuries in the process.
For example, they will be able to block fights physically by standing between warring pupils; they will also be able to hold badly behaving pupils firmly by the arm to restrain them, preventing them from harming themselves and others. Crucially, they can now use reasonable force to remove disruptive pupils from classes, too.
It’s not all about restraint, either. A more important part of our job is to encourage children – and a small amount of physical contact can play a huge part. Teachers need the right to comfort pupils: a kindly arm around the shoulder works wonders when a child is depressed. A pat on the back to praise a child low on confidence also works well.
Too often, the “no touch” policy, endorsed under Labour, whereby all physical contact is banned, has stopped teachers from doing their jobs properly, afraid of the inevitable accusations. Now at last, this policy too will be ended.
The irony is that the vast majority of children like being in well-ordered, well-structured classrooms, which is exactly what the Government is trying to achieve. Most of them hate disorder, feel uncomfortable with it and while, yes, they’ll play along with the unruly minority, they secretly resent not being able to learn properly.
Reasonable force must, of course, always be a last resort. But at least the would-be yobs will know it can be used. The more powers teachers have in their limited arsenal, the more confident they will be in keeping order, thus meeting the educational needs of the overwhelming majority. They need no longer feel so alone.
I’m lucky enough to be teaching in a supremely well-run school. But in some schools, it’s all too easy to lose control in the classroom, especially when you’re new. New teachers need all the support they can get and these guidelines will give them much more belief in their own ability to do the job well.
As I know from bitter experience, it only takes a few short weeks for a well-drilled class to become riotous. I’ve seen colleagues in the past – well-meaning, kindly souls, who would rather resign than physically hurt a child – come out of their classrooms, at the end of a long day, shell-shocked because they’ve received so much verbal abuse. They may be experts in maths, medieval history or modern languages, but if they cannot keep order they are sunk.
Teenagers, in particular, are quick to sense what teachers can and cannot do. In fact, there has been a trend of children spouting their rights at teachers, even whilst misbehaving, emboldened by the fact that they know Sir or Miss can do very little physically to restrain them, for fear of being suspended (“You can’t touch me, Sir – my dad will be straight on to the head!”). A small minority of parents have been all too ready to criticise and even sue teachers for trying to do their jobs properly.
To my own lasting shame, early in my career I lost control of a class and I would certainly have welcomed these new “reasonable force” guidelines then. The warning signs seem small at first and easy to ignore: questions shouted out in class, constant interruptions, constant chattering to other children. But they can quickly degenerate into a hell-hole, where three or four loudmouths are ruining the education of 20 others. Shrieking yobs rather than studious pupils become the norm.
There’s no doubt in my mind that had I been able to take hold of one of these loudmouths when I was struggling to keep order and physically remove him from my classroom, life would have been so much easier. Without an audience to play to, most louts lose their power. As it was, the worst offender simply refused to budge when he was “sent out”. And with the words of my then head of department ringing in my ears – “Whatever you do, don’t touch them” – I felt powerless.
There will be those who carp and criticise (“What exactly is reasonable force?”), but these latest guidelines on the sensible use of physical restraint to help create structured, ordered classrooms should be welcomed: full marks to the Government for setting out such guidance clearly and concisely.
No one wants a return to the bad old days of canes and beatings, but teachers must have the right to use reasonable restraint as a last resort. The alternative – thousands more suspensions, thousands more failing pupils – is a far more frightening prospect.
How Britain’s green politicking will deepen fuel poverty
British consumers will pay a high price for Chris Huhne’s desire for moral grandstanding on climate change
The ‘dithering’ is over, declared UK energy secretary Chris Huhne. After years of handwringing and indecision, Britain has an energy policy – and it is perhaps surprisingly pro-nuclear. However, in its efforts to promote low-carbon energy, the policy promises a continuation of rising fuel bills, which will make life harder both for companies and householders.
The past couple of decades have been relatively easy for UK energy planners. Most of our electricity has come from coal, gas and nuclear power. Energy has been fairly cheap. By shifting the balance from coal towards gas, greenhouse gas emissions have gone down quite a bit, which looks good when lecturing other countries.
But global warming fears and the need to replace those ageing nuclear power stations have meant that politicians have had to get round to making some tricky decisions, something that the modern, principle-lite politician isn’t really cut out for.
Slowly but surely, ministers have come to the realisation that renewables simply can’t replace fossil fuels or nuclear power except as a small proportion of the mix of energy we use. Wind and solar are intermittent and unreliable. We can get power from them, but it is relatively expensive and must always be backed up by other, more reliable, sources of energy.
So, for example, in the first quarter of 2011, UK electricity supplies broke down as follows (according to statistics from the Department of Energy and Climate Change):
Gas – 38.2 per cent
Coal – 34 per cent
Nuclear – 17.9 per cent
Renewables – 8.1 per cent
It should be noted that the ‘renewables’ category includes things like landfill gas (from rotting rubbish), ‘biomass’ (which includes such mad ideas such as power stations importing timber to burn), and old hydropower stations. There isn’t much more where that came from. Wind, which would be the main source of renewable energy in the future in the UK, still only meets a small proportion of British energy needs, even if it is growing quite quickly.
But the problem is compounded because these figures only reflect electricity production. To meet the vision of a far-off, carbon-neutral future, the fuel for transport – currently almost entirely from oil – and the heating of our homes and hot water, much of it done by gas, will need to be replaced by electricity from low-carbon sources. But renewables currently only produce 3.3 per cent of Britain’s total energy needs. No wonder some high-profile erstwhile anti-nuclear campaigners have become converts to the idea of new nuclear power stations as an alternative to burning more and more coal: renewables just aren’t up to the job and won’t be for a long time.
Developments in technology may eventually make renewables much more viable. But for now, if we want reliable power at a reasonable price, we need such old favourites as gas and nuclear.
What does the energy White Paper propose, then? Basically, the government wants to create a framework so that energy companies can build nuclear-power stations and windfarms with confidence, knowing that they can rely on a certain price for that power. To that end there will be a ‘feed-in’ tariff that will guarantee a certain minimum price for nuclear and wind power. But wind power will still need back-up, so the plan also allows for incentives – a ‘capacity mechanism’ – to build new gas-powered stations that will cut in when conditions are not windy or when demand surges.
On the other side, the White Paper also proposes new emissions standards that will make building coal-fired power stations impossible unless they are fitted with a mechanism for carbon capture and storage (CCS). So that rules out pretty much the cheapest source of power until such time as an unproven technology becomes commercially viable. Existing gas and coal generation will also be made more expensive by creating a ‘floor price’ that will have to be paid for every unit of carbon emitted.
Nuclear power companies gave the proposals the thumbs up. Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, the UK subsidiary of the French energy giant EDF, told the Financial Times: ‘This package is going to deliver for the future the right balance between what the investors want and what the customers need… We need to rebuild Britain’s energy infrastructure. We need to do it and we all know it will have a cost. The White Paper is designed to keep that at a minimum.’
Others were lukewarm, with supporters of wind energy concerned that the particular form of feed-in tariff would help nuclear more than it would help wind. However, Huhne – once apparently a staunch opponent of nuclear – rejected the alternatives on the grounds of price.
What is absolutely crystal clear is that energy in the UK is getting more expensive and it will continue to get more expensive in the future. These new policies will only be one factor in those rising prices. Demand for energy is rising both in Britain and worldwide. As Michael Pollitt notes in the Guardian, past UK policy has focused on delivering low prices (which may surprise those facing eye-watering energy bills now). With the emphasis on delivering the new generating capacity – at an estimated cost of £110 billion over the next few years – the pressure will be off on squeezing prices.
But the decision to favour low-carbon technologies will exacerbate the problem; the cost of all those feed-in tariffs will have to be passed on to businesses and consumers. By promoting wind, for example, and thereby having to build gas-fired power stations to provide back-up, two lots of generating capacity have to be built.
As critics like Matt Ridley have pointed out, much of the emission-reduction benefits could have been achieved at a lower price by simply building the gas-powered stations alone and promoting the development of shale gas resources (see Shale gas: a welcome ‘energy shock’). Energy-intensive businesses will have a greater incentive to relocate to areas where power is cheap and commitments to reducing emissions are non-existent.
Rather than trying to force through renewables technology that isn’t competitive yet, it would be better for the government to support further research and development while continuing to encourage a broad mix of different energy sources – including coal. The world isn’t burning up, there’s no need to panic – particularly when much bigger countries than Britain will carry on burning massive quantities of cheap coal for decades to come. At least the White Paper has finally put forward a serious policy to support new nuclear power after years of technophobia in the corridors of power.
Setting out a low-carbon policy in the UK will have next to zero effect on climate change, whatever the effect of manmade greenhouse gas emissions will be. It will make UK business less competitive and it will push more people into fuel poverty. It may even cost jobs if some firms quit Britain altogether. But never mind, eh? At least British politicians will be setting a ‘moral lead’ on climate change to the rest of the world.
Comments from Britain
A yen by the elite for a “controlled” press is behind the overheated attacks on Murdoch
“THIS is our Berlin Wall moment.” So said The Guardian columnist George Monbiot on Wednesday, in response to Rupert Murdoch’s decision to withdraw his bid for BSkyB. Other commentators have rummaged through more recent democratic upheavals to find the right words to express the momentousness of Murdoch’s travails. “It’s like the Arab Spring,” media expert Roy Greenslade said: “Rupert Mubarak faces empire meltdown as a revolution threatens to denude him of his power.”
A Liberal Democrat MP borrowed from Martin Luther King to express his giddy glee at what the phone-hacking scandal has done to the “Murdoch empire”. Politicians are “free at last” from this media mogul’s pressure, he said, “free like the prisoners emerging into the sunlight in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio”. And in case anyone was in any doubt as to the impact of this very British revolution, socialite and journalist Jemima Khan spelled out how the world has changed forever. “I’m told Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks were refused a table at the River Cafe last night when they tried to book. Inconceivable a month ago,” she tweeted.
These excitable hacks do a grave injustice to the freedom-hungry masses of yesteryear by lumping their struggles in with the media-led agitation against Murdoch. For no amount of shameless plundering of past democratic moments can disguise the fact that what we are witnessing in Britain is a media coup led by a tiny gaggle of illiberal liberals. This not a mass movement for change, still less is it something akin to the collapse of Stalinism in Europe in 1989. Rather, the anti-Murdoch moral crusade represents the convergence of various minority interests, and the biggest loser won’t be Murdoch but media freedom.
So many commentators have allowed themselves to be swallowed by schadenfreude that they have lost the ability to step back and ask: what is motoring this crusade and what will its impact be?
The first nonsense notion that needs to be put to bed is that the extent to which the phone-hacking scandal has dominated media and political debate is a reflection of rocketing public disgust. There has been “a fit of public outrage”, claims one reporter. Labour leader Ed Miliband even described Murdoch’s decision to close the News of the World as a victory for “people power”.
In truth, the public is nowhere near as exercised over these matters as the liberal media and its lapdogs in parliament are. Public polling guru Deborah Mattinson says at her most recent focus group on politics, the phone-hacking scandal “didn’t even come up”. In this era of recession, people have more pressing things to worry about.
In Mattinson’s words, they’re “more concerned about their own family finances than the Murdoch family’s finances”.
Descriptions of anti-Murdoch media agitation as “people power” is a see-through attempt to paint a cliquish crusade as something more dignified. What poses as a movement for moral decency against low-rent newspapers is really a collection of individuals and organisations motivated by vengeance, grubby business interests or simply a burning desire to de-fang the tabloids.
The two politicians at the forefront of the crusade are John Prescott, former Labour deputy prime minister, and Chris Bryant, Labour MP. It can’t be a coincidence that both have been badly burned by Murdoch tabloids, finding their extramarital affairs (Prescott) or their penchant for posing in their Y-fronts on gay-sex websites (Bryant) splashed across their pages. Likewise, one doesn’t need a degree in political science to see why Hugh Grant has transmogrified overnight from floppy-haired actor into a one-man army against tabloid hacks: he’s never forgiven them for the fun they had at his expense after he indulged in certain roadside larks with a hooker in Los Angeles in 1995.
Privacy lawyers, who long to muzzle the media on behalf of wealthy clients, have also thrown in their lot with the anti-Murdoch crusade. They are licking their lips at the prospect of a shift in public opinion following the revelation that the News of the World didn’t only hack celebs’ phones but also murder and terror victims’ phones, a shift from favouring press freedom towards favouring the superinjunctions and other medieval forms of censorship beloved of the privacy lobby.
The Guardian’s agenda also isn’t difficult to decipher. It has a longstanding animosity towards the “Murdoch empire”, blaming it for everything from the demise of the Labour Party in the 1980s to the denigration of Britain’s political culture. And The New York Times has turned this British scandal into a big issue in the US not because it is a paragon of journalistic integrity but as part of its corporate stand-off with The Wall Street Journal and other Murdoch assets in the Big Apple.
These self-interested crusaders may pose as warriors against alleged criminality in the tabloid press, but their true target is the culture of the tabloid press, the age-old arts of muckraking and sabre-rattling, which they consider vulgar and offensive. Under the guise of ending illegal phone-hacking, they’re really pursuing a culture war against what they view as the ugly, mass, populist media.
So Grant won applause on BBC television’s Question Time when he said “I’m not for regulating the proper press, the broadsheet press. But it is insane that the tabloid is left unregulated.”
The extent to which the crusade is now about stamping out what is perceived to be an inferior form of journalism and public debate can be seen in the way that the crusaders flit between condemning alleged crimes at the News of the World to condemning the culture at it and other papers.
Indeed, following the closure of that Murdoch title, having smelled the blood of the Right, some liberal hacks turned their sights on other, non-Murdoch tabloids. Peter Wilby at The Guardian effectively told his readers-crusaders to avoid resting on their laurels and instead to turn their tabloid-hatin’ attentions to the Daily Mail. “The Mail, with its suburban, curtain-twitching prurience, is in some respects worse than Murdoch’s tabloids,” he declared. “It has been a consistent enemy of liberal policies and it remains deeply hostile to scientists warning of global warming.”
Opposed to liberal ideas? Insufficiently green? Suburban? Kill it off.
Destroy it. Send it to the same graveyard where the News of the World, scourge of highbrows everywhere, is now kicking up a stench.
After all, as Mehdi Hasan at the New Statesman put it, these are papers that “most of us had little to do with”. “Most of us” is an interesting choice of phrase. He clearly isn’t referring to the 7.5 million people who enjoyed reading the News of the World or the million “curtain-twitching suburbanites” who dumbly devour the Daily Mail but to his own coterie of tabloid-allergic friends and colleagues.
This cuts to the heart of the anti-Murdoch moral crusade: its pretensions of “people power”, its anti-crime posturing, is a cover for its declaration of war against the culture of the “lower orders”, against those rags that dare to say things that run counter to the cosmopolitan outlook of the city-centre elites.
The fallout of this cultural crusade on press freedom will be dire. Already Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to institute a new regulatory body with “more teeth” — and presumably therefore more bite — than the Press Complaints Commission. He is setting up an inquiry to investigate press behaviour and morality, seemingly having forgotten that it is the media’s job to investigate government, not the other way round.
And more than 350 years after poet John Milton wrote an impassioned plea to the parliament of his day asking it to bring to an end the system of government licensing for newspapers, there is a serious debate about reintroducing licences for journalists, presumably to ensure that the suburban ones, who don’t buy into global-warming alarmism or support “liberal policies”, are kept out.
These are deeply troubling times for press freedom. The likeliest side effect of the anti-Murdoch moral crusade will be the homogenisation of the press, the straitjacketing of journalism, the enforcement of middle-class moral conformism. That is far too high a price to pay just so some celebs and politicians can get revenge on Rupert. If you agree with Milton — that we should have “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” — then you should stand against this intolerant cultural tide.
“You cannot pluck the rose without the thorn”
The death of a free press, the hacking off of investigative journalism – the scandals nobody is talking about
What do you think about hacking into the phone messages of abducted teenager Milly Dowler or the relatives of other victims of murder, terrorism or war? Are you for or against it?
Personally, having weighed it carefully, I think it’s a bad thing. And so it seems does every other human being who has commented, including everybody associated with the News of the World and the detective who is said to have carried out these acts of phone-hacking for that ex-newspaper. Nobody is trying to defend the indefensible.
When everybody is repeating the same thing, particularly in tones of moral outrage, you can be pretty sure that there are other uncomfortable questions left unasked. So let us, just for a moment, talk about something else. Such as the responses to the scandal which threaten to make everything worse. You do not need to be a champion of Rupert Murdoch’s empire or a fan of the News of the World (and, despite having taken the ‘Murdoch shilling’ by writing for The Times, I am neither) to see that there are other scandals developing here, almost unchallenged. To name just a few:
The scandal of the closure of a popular newspaper being celebrated as a triumph of democracy.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said the end of the News of the World was a victory for ‘people power’, and many others on the liberal left celebrated the death of their tabloid bête-noire as if they had won an election. In fact, the pressure that did for Britain’s best-selling newspaper, read by millions of actual people each Sunday for 160-odd years, was generated by a relative handful of modish journalists and online ‘activists’ (active with their typing fingers anyway). It was less a triumph for people’s democracy than a confirmation of the tyranny of the intolerant Twittertariat.
The British petit-bourgeois intelligentsia has always feared and despised mass newspapers and the vulgar throng who consume them (for the history of this elitist disdain, see John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses). More recently they have turned ‘tabloid’ into a swear word and blamed the Murdoch redtops for brainwashing the public – a convenient let-off for their own inability to win a political argument with normal newspaper readers.
Now at last they have succeeded in depriving the public of their allegedly mind-altering Sunday fix. Oh Brave New World, that does not have the News of the World in it! The illiberal liberals would only be happier if they could have extinguished Murdoch’s Sun, too. Jarvis Cocker of Pulp (great music, shame about the politics) symbolically wiped his arse with the final edition of the News of the World on stage at a music festival on Sunday. Why didn’t the sanitisation police just go the whole hog and burn the evil tabloid at the stake?
The scandal that British politics has become an arms race to see who can whip the press hardest.
Asked at the weekend what his party stands for now, the first thing Labour leader Miliband could come out with was… reform of the press. So a party of the political living dead that has abandoned any pretence of principles has finally found something to believe in. Who needs an alternative vision of the economy or the future when you can bash the tabloids?
Not to be outdone, Tory prime minister David Cameron made a big speech to announce that yes, it’s all very well for the media to ‘speak truth to power’, but it’s also important that ‘those in power can tell truth to the press’. In which case, why don’t government ministries cut out the middle men and write the newspapers themselves? They could call it the Ministry of Truth (for the history of this institution, see George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). At any moment before last week, such an arrogantly censorious statement from a UK government would have sparked a furious press reaction. Yet so cowed have the media been by recent events that they uttered barely a whimper.
If this is what politics has become, little wonder that cries of ‘Hugh Grant for prime minister!’ have been heard on every celebrity chat and comedy show. It began with the Hollywood crusader for superinjunctions and censorship trying to act like the prime minister he played in the execrable Love, Actually. Now it looks as if Cameron and Miliband are actually trying to act like Hugh Grant.
The scandal of sectional interests posing as the ‘public interest’.
Mention of Grant should remind us that question marks hang over many of those who have recently discovered such a heartfelt concern with journalistic standards. Is Grant the moral crusader for media regulation in any way related to the posh British actor who was splashed all over the press after being caught with his pants down with a Hollywood hooker?
Has Lord John Prescott the outraged critic of the tabloids ever met the buffoonish Labour deputy prime minister who was made into an even grosser figure of ridicule by the papers’ exposure of his affair with his secretary?
Does Chris Bryant, who has toured every news studio to denounce the Murdoch press, remember the young Labour MP exposed in the press for posting pictures of himself in his underpants on a gay sex website? And so it goes on.
Ours is an age in which it often seems nobody can offer any strong opinion without being accused of acting on behalf of some ‘special interest group’ or of protecting narrow economic interests. Yet in this case the usually clear-eyed cynical commentariat appears to be suffering from collective selective amnesia, unable to see any connection between the past well-publicised antics of outraged celebrities and politicians and their sudden passion for press reform. Instead they have all been allowed a free hand to attack ‘tabloid culture’ from behind the banner of ‘the public interest’ – a standard which is not, of course, to be set by the lowly public themselves, but by high-minded journalists or the judiciary.
The scandal of the hacking down of investigative journalism.
In the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, the general consensus in the political class appears to be that the British press does too much prying into other people’s business and pokes its nose where it is not wanted much too far and too often. In fact there is already far too little investigative journalism in the UK media. And the response to the hacking scandal suggests that in future there will be even less of it.
What the News of the World was alleged to have done to Milly Dowler and other victims and relatives was not, of course, journalism. As spiked pointed out from the start, it was voyeurism. The problem was not so much the phone-hacking of private information – such tactics could be justified in pursuit of a story in another situation. It was that these things were done for no purpose other than to spy on personal feelings and prey on the emotions of victims and their relatives. Such a voyeuristic attitude is not, it should be noted, entirely confined to the News of the World; all mainstream media outlets have become obsessed with reporting feelings as much as facts in recent years.
The irony is that the News of the World was also almost the only British newspaper that still put serious resources into investigating stories and making the news, rather than simply reprinting what it was handed. Its exposés of corruption and hypocrisy often dominated the following week’s news. Some of us might not always have approved of the subjects it chose to investigate. But that should surely have been a cue for more probing investigative journalism of a different stripe.
Instead there is now likely to be even less boldness in that direction in the face of the outcry about hacking – and whatever replaces the News of the World on Sundays could well be a pale imitation. In the furore about phone-hacking, it seems to have been forgotten not only that investigative journalism is crucial to public debate, but that it will always involve underhand methods, since it is about finding out what others don’t want you to know.
The scandal of a free press left to die slowly, unmourned.
This is the worst undiscussed scandal of all. The harrying to closure of the News of the World by illiberal liberals marks a milestone on the road to ruin. Yet it has been met in media circles not with outraged protests, but with the familiar mix of cynicism and naivety: cynicism that claims it is simply a ‘business decision’ by the Murdochs (as if killing your cash cow was good business), and naivety that suggests you can ‘clean up’ and regulate the tabloid press while miraculously leaving ‘good journalism’ untouched.
In reality, the more influence that ministers, judges, policemen, commissions and crusaders are able to exercise over the media, the less freedom of expression there is going to be for all. Freedom of the press, like any freedom, is not divisible. You cannot have more controls on the ‘bad’ and let the ‘good’ (whatever that might be) run free. As a wise German wrote 170 years ago, ‘lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind…. [L]eaving aside the moral consequences, bear in mind that you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns! And what do you lose with a free press?’
As that man Karl Marx also wrote, a ‘bad’ free press is always better than a ‘good’ controlled one – if you hope to get to the truth about politics, war, or scandals.
Rule by media in Britain
In the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years, Rupert Murdoch’s empire exploited an alternative and corrupt system of government.
When I went to work in the House of Commons as a lobby correspondent nearly 20 years ago, I assumed that the British constitution worked along the lines we had been taught in textbooks at school and university. Which is to say: Britain was a representative democracy; the police were reasonably honest; and the country was governed under the rule of law. I naively expected MPs to be honest and driven by a sense of duty, and ministers to be public-spirited.
During my first few years at Westminster, I came to appreciate that most of my assumptions were hardly true. In particular, it became clear that power had seeped away from the Commons, which had lost many of its traditional functions. It rarely held ministers to account, and ministers no longer made their announcements to the House, as Erskine May, the rulebook of Parliament, insisted they should; instead they were leaked out through journalists.
For a number of years I was a part of this alternative system of government. We would be fed information confidentially and behind the scenes, and treated as if we were more important than elected MPs.
All this was very flattering – and professionally very useful – but I couldn’t help sensing that something was wrong. It wasn’t just that the media had taken over the function of Parliament, it also meant that the traditional checks and balances no longer operated. Above all, information could be put into the public domain privately and therefore unaccountably.
All newspapers were guilty of being part of this new system, but it was exploited in particular by the Murdoch press. I believe that when Rupert Murdoch arrived on the British scene in the 1960s, he was, on balance, a force for good. The deference that still defined a great deal of political culture was challenged by Mr Murdoch, and better still he took on and defeated the print unions, which had all but destroyed the British newspaper industry in the 1970s.
But by the 1990s, Murdoch’s newspapers were starting to abuse their power. The best way of demonstrating this is perhaps by examining the career of Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International who is in such trouble this week. Her professional career is, in a number of ways, a parable for the times we have lived through.
One of the greatest adventuresses of her era, she emerged on the scene when New Labour under Tony Blair was on the verge of power. During this time she was married to Ross Kemp, the EastEnders actor who was one of the most powerful defenders of New Labour. They lived in south London, emphasising the faux-proletarian credentials that were such an important, if misleading, part of the New Labour message.
As New Labour’s star waned, Rebekah Brooks changed course. She ceased to be the cool, metropolitan figure favoured by New Labour. She moved to Oxfordshire, took up riding and became the central figure in the now notorious Chipping Norton set.
Meanwhile, her titles changed their allegiance. The political editor of the Sun might have been deemed to lack the impeccable social credentials demanded by an incoming Tory government. He was replaced by an Old Marlburian.
The identical transfiguration took place at The Times, where Phil Webster, one of the few remaining journalists in Fleet Street who has come up the hard way, was removed. Webster, who had been a favourite of the Blair government, found himself replaced as political editor by Roly Watson, who had been a member of Pop, the exclusive club at Eton, at the same time as David Cameron.
A pattern was clear. Rebekah Brooks (like all the News International insiders) attached herself like glue to whichever political party held the ascendancy.
During the Blair years, News International executives, Mrs Brooks among them, would attend the annual Labour Party conference, but they were scarcely treated as journalists. When Tony Blair gave his leadership speech, they would be awarded seats just behind the cabinet, as if they had been co-opted into the Government.
Arguably they had. The first telephone call that Blair made after he had escaped from the conference hall was routinely to Rupert Murdoch himself. And when ministers who had been favoured by the Murdoch press left office, they would be rewarded. David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell were both given columns on News International publications.
A version of this process repeated itself when Gordon Brown became prime minister, with Rebekah Brooks attending Sarah Brown’s cringe-making “pyjama party” at Chequers. It may not suit Mr Brown, who made such a passionate speech in the Commons yesterday, to remember it but he, too, was part of the Murdoch system of government. And so was David Cameron, who last October threw a party for his closest friends to celebrate his 44th birthday. Reportedly everyone present had known the Prime Minister all his adult life – with the exception of Mrs Brooks.
There was a very sinister element to these relationships. At exactly the same time that Mrs Brooks was getting on so famously with the most powerful men and women in Britain, the employees of her newspapers (as we now know) were listening in to their voicemails and illicitly gaining access to deeply personal information.
One News of the World journalist once told me how this information would be gathered into dossiers; sometimes these dossiers were published, sometimes not. The knowledge that News International held such destructive power must have been at the back of everyone’s minds at the apparently cheerful social events where the company’s executives mingled with their client politicians.
Let’s take the case of Tessa Jowell. When she was Culture Secretary five years ago, News International hacked into her phone and spied on her in other ways. What was going on amounted to industrial espionage, since Ms Jowell was then charged with the regulation and supervision of News International, and the media group can scarcely have avoided discovering commercially sensitive information, even though its primary purpose was to discover details about Ms Jowell’s private life.
Yet consider this: Ms Jowell was informed of this intrusion at the time and said nothing. More curious still, she retained her friendship with Rebekah Brooks and other News International figures. Indeed, Ms Jowell appears to have been present at the Cotswolds party thrown by Matthew Freud, son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, only 10 days ago.
James Murdoch, heir apparent to the Murdoch empire, was also present. These parties were, in effect, a conspiracy between the British media and the political class against the country as a whole. They were the men and women who governed Britain and decided who was up and who was out. Government policy was influenced and sometimes created. I doubt very much whether Britain would have invaded Iraq but for the foolhardy support of the Murdoch press.
The effect on government policy was wretched. Decisions were determined by consideration of the following day’s headlines rather than sound analysis. Furthermore, private favours were dispensed; Blair when prime minister spoke to his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi about one of Murdoch’s business deals in Italy.
Of course it was all kept secret, though details did sometimes leak out. All recent prime ministers have insisted that their meetings with Murdoch were confidential and did not need to be disclosed, as if they were somehow private affairs. Mercifully, Cameron – who has partially emerged from the sewer thanks to his Commons statement – has put an end to this concealment.
It has taken the horror of the revelations concerning the targeting by the Murdoch empire of the family of Milly Dowler, terrorist victims and even relatives of British war dead to bring this corrupt, complicit, and conspiratorial system of government to light.
The process of exposure has taken far too long, but there is at last hope. Two years ago, Rebekah Brooks contemptuously turned down an invitation to give evidence to MPs about how she operated. Next week, Rupert Murdoch, his son James and the reluctant Brooks will all be dragged before them.
The system of collaboration between an over-mighty press and timorous politicians is being exposed. There is hope that we can return to a more decent system of government; that Parliament can reassert its rights, and that ministers will make their decisions for the right reasons and not simply to ingratiate themselves with Murdoch and his newspaper editors. Perhaps the sickness that has demeaned and distorted British politics for the last two decades is at last being challenged and confronted.