Matthew Norman on Monday: Blackmail... isn't that what they did to Maria Church?


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The Independent Online

The question comes framed with the tentativeness of one who long ago failed the solicitors' final exam by what remains the widest margin in Law Society history ... but is there not good reason to try News of the World employees, and perhaps vicariously the company itself, for blackmail?

Lawyer David Sherborne last week told the Leveson Inquiry how the mother of Charlotte Church, Maria, whom Sherborne represents, featured in a 1995 story, under Andy Coulson's famously hands-off editorship, about her partner's alleged infidelity and cocaine use. That the NoW published it, though instructive, isn't the point. The point is that, she claims, hacks then threatened to run another piece unless Maria Church gave them an exclusive interview.

Although this tactic is nauseatingly familiar, this is the first, on-the-record evidence that could lead to a criminal investigation into the offence (14 years maximum sentence, to put hacking in perspective). Blackmail is the extortion of something of value, after all, with the threat of exposing compromising information. Unless he has compelling reason to doubt Mrs Church's account, Lord Leveson should want to refer this to the Met without delay. Or failing that, to a force better qualified to investigate it, such as the Serious Crimes Unit at Camberwick Green.

A new tie-up for Balls and bishops

Good to find Ed Balls supporting the bishops' opposition to the cap on benefits. This is the first important Balls-church tie-up since his 1998 wedlock to Yvette Cooper, when that adorable pair persuaded the manager of Eastbourne's Cavendish Hotel to charge wedding guests a secret room rate surcharge (estimates range from £9 to £25), to reduce their own bill by some £2,500. Bless Ed's heart, he always did love a stealth tax.

Blair's judgement is a piffling issue

Is there anything more wearying than the glee with which Blair Haters seize on Saif Gaddafi's arrest? Mr T has repeatedly stated that his trips to Tripoli were entirely unremunerated, and nothing Saif might say will shake our faith in that. Besides, as the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith declared yesterday, Mr Tony's judgement is a "piffling issue" in the context of the Arab Spring. At this early stage, there is no word of anyone putting his lordship up against a wall and threatening to break his legs, à la his volte-face over the legality of invading Iraq.

Garry falls into the knowledge gap

Radio 5 Live's Garry Richardson was on cracking form on his Sportsweek show yesterday, when asking Basil D'Oliveira's England team-mate Keith Fletcher to reflect on rooming with Dolly "on tour to South Africa" (in fact, Australia). Sports broadcasters can struggle when they stray beyond home turf, so thank heaven for one who straddles the perilous knowledge gap with elegance and grace.

Ian Wright, the sinner repenteth

Friday's Sun featured the third polemic on football racism from former Arsenal striker Ian Wright (Wright, Wright), who demanded Sepp Blatter's head. The previous two concerning alleged racist abuse by John Terry of the kind Blatter believes best resolved by a manly handshake. Wrighty rightly demands condine punishment both for racism and for those who do not hunt it down. What he keeps forgetting to mention is how in 1997, after Man Utd goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel screamed "you fucking black bastard" at him (as verified by two lip readers I hired at the time), he refused to grass up the Dane to the feds. That prevented the DPP bringing a charge, which in turn allowed the FA to play ostrich. Still, heaven loveth a sinner that repenteth.

Settle this BBC bust-up in the ring

I must say, I find all this on-air bickering between Eddie Mair of R4's PM and BBC business editor Robert Peston a bit confusing. Now I like waspish Eddie, but I also like ruminative Pesto. But which is better? There's only way to find out ... Fiiiiiiight! These two need to settle it in the ring. It has the makings of the most electrifying Sports Relief mash-up since Ricky Gervais nicked a highly contentious split decision over Grant Bovey in 2002.

An egotist on a Desert Island

If anyone featured on R4 this year has sounded less self-regarding than Pesto, it was Robert Hardy. The actor and English Civil War bore yesterday chose his own co-authored magnum opus, on the history of the longbow, as his Desert Island book. "It sounds very egotistical...". Self-effacing to a fault.