One of the abiding positive achievements of Mrs Thatcher was the formalisation of the system of House of Commons select committees. Of course, she stopped short of going the full distance and giving them strong powers and properly funded secretariats. A combination of a lack of cash and anxiety from Whitehall’s Sir Humphreys has meant they exist in constitutional fudge – lacking the inquisitorial abilities of their US equivalents, for example, unable to produce reports that must be obeyed.
A typical illustration of their enforced, one-hand-tied-behind-the-back approach has arisen, with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s decision to “invite” Lord Justice Leveson to give evidence before them. Invite? He should be dragged from his chambers and frogmarched into the committee room, the trouble he has caused.
He has said that he will appear, but not until the autumn. That is too late.
It is absurd that, more than nine months since he published his recommendations on press regulation, barely a squeak will have been heard in public from the good lord. I know that is his right and the traditional position is that judges do not expose themselves to the questions of the mob, but, honestly, is that any way to behave in the 21st century?
Leveson can explain why he chose to obey an instruction not to publish the secret report from the Serious Organised Crime Agency disclosing that phone-hacking was not confined to journalists of the dubious kind but was a standard trick of the trade for lawyers, insurance firms and big business – anyone, in fact, who hired a private investigator and wanted them to compile a personal dossier on someone.
He might shed some light on one of his inquiry’s team of lawyers having an affair with a barrister assisting some of the phone-hacking victims; albeit after the inquiry was over, according to them. And the controversy surrounding Sir David Bell’s role as an adviser to the inquiry and as one of those behind a group calling for higher press ethics.
These, though, ought to be peripheral. Leveson’s main service should be to try to end the current impasse on a new framework, to give his opinion on the proposed charters – the first, from the three main parties, the second from the large newspaper organisations.
Time is running out. There is a deadline looming, on 9 September. That’s the date the first of the criminal hacking trials is due to begin.
Why does that matter? Because if there is not a system of self-regulation in place, or at least if the foundations have not been laid so that building work can quickly begin, we may have to kiss goodbye to independent press self-regulation.
The public, I’m reliably told, are likely to be shocked by the evidence presented in those cases. Such will be the mood that any attempt by opponents of the newspapers at Westminster, aided and abetted by the campaigners at Hacked Off, to impose statutory force will meet with little resistance.
There will be the shouts of protest from the newspaper groups but given what has been said in court, these are likely to ring hollow. This is what I’m assured is going to occur. It may be nonsense – legal proceedings can take many twists and turns, so that any such revelation does not materialise. And, I must stress, I am not suggesting guilt on behalf of anyone – just because we’ve been warned to brace ourselves does not mean that the accused may not have answers for everything that is thrown at them.
However, I’m told: don’t be surprised if, against this backdrop, the press’s enemies pour scorn on the proposal of regulation by charter as being far too anachronistic, cosy and lacking teeth.
The hearings are scheduled to last around nine months. (One issue for David Cameron’s advisers to address is that by the time the proceedings are over, the finish line starts to get awfully close to the general election.)
Which leaves between now and 9 September. Leveson should be made to appear in front of the MPs before then. Alongside that, the MPs need to scream and shout: a deal has to be struck. It’s already the end of June. The summer holidays loom. There is not long left.
Farewell to a genuine Blofeld
When famous people die there can be a tendency to fall into hyperbole. Suddenly, they’re towering, their contributions outstanding – when in truth, they can’t all be. In the case of Marc Rich, whose death has just been announced, though, there is no exaggeration. He was truly monumental.
Alas, his legacy is not one that meets with universal approval. For Rich was the architect of global commodity trading, he was the business genius (some would say evil genius), a genuine Blofeld who made billions treating resources as counters in a board game. Forced to flee the US, he operated out of Switzerland. I went there to interview him. He’d been implicated in a scam involving aluminium. He refused to see me. I questioned one of his associates. “Chris, why have you come to talk to us about aluminium?” he asked. I said, what should I be asking about? “Copper. Six months from now, look at the price,” he replied, smiling. Sure enough. The Financial Times reported to the very day: “Copper reaches all-time high, suspected heavy buying by Marc Rich.”
The great Glasto loo dilemma
For the past few weeks I’ve frantically been checking the weather forecast – me and 150,000 other souls. As one, we heaved a sigh and grinned like maniacs earlier this week: it’s going to be dry, Glastonbury is going to be dry! This will be my third time at Worthy Farm. I’ve had one without rain and one where mud was everywhere. It’s not just impossibly gloopy; it stinks. I vowed never again.
But I’m off, taking my eldest daughter Daisy, 24. We’re staying in a yurt (I know, I know, but give me a break, I’m 53 and as I say, I know how bad it can get), complete with bedding and electricity. But no running water and no WC.
Some things are forever Glastonbury, such as the great loo dilemma. The queue for the short drop toilets is non-existent; for the long drop it’s 30 deep. Which to go for? The queue for the long drop is there for a reason. But you want to get back, to catch your favourite band. Head or heart, long drop or short drop?
Wimbledon’s not old-fashioned, it’s a very sweet affair…
I used to think that Wimbledon was a quaint, old-fashioned affair, peopled by staff in bizarre uniforms and run according to unusual codes. No wonder we never produced a champion; no shock that children prefer football to tennis. Then I went to the Royal Box, and now I admit I was wrong. I was there on Wednesday in the presence of true greatness, Mo Farah, and Sir Bruce Forsyth. It was wonderful. What was striking, apart from the fact that everything ran like clockwork, was the informality. I’ve been to hospitality at football matches that has been stuffier. My favourite Royal Box secret? They pass round a bucket of sweets – every variety you can think of – and you’re instructed to move it along discreetly, at knee height, so the crowd don’t think we’re sitting there filling our faces.