Stephen Doughty, the Labour MP and shadow foreign affairs minister, resigned on 6 January, live on television, less than an hour before PMQs. It embarrassed Jeremy Corbyn at the Despatch Box, that is true. But the people who have complained that the on-air resignation on the Daily Politics was a stitch-up between BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg and the programme’s producers don’t understand journalism.
Doughty was resigning anyway, and had already written to Corbyn shortly beforehand. Kuenssberg, like any other journalist, wanted to get the scoop of his resignation. There was no bias: would it have been better if the BBC had urged the MP for Cardiff South to go on Sky News to resign instead? Or had got a Tory MP on to the programme to resign at the same time?
This was not news created, but news reported. Stories happen all the time, it is just a question of how to make sure it is your readers or viewers, and not those of your rivals, who get to see it first. Likewise, there are millions of puddles across this country, but only one enterprising company, Drummond, decided to livestream one on Periscope in a suburb of Newcastle that ended up being viewed by more than 50,000 people, becoming a news story on the same day as Doughty’s resignation. A second puddle live on Periscope would be old news.
Doughty resigned for honourable reasons – he did not agree with the sacking of Pat McFadden as shadow Europe minister and Michael Dugher as shadow Culture Secretary. He could have tweeted his resignation, but instead took up the offer to do it on TV. Why shouldn’t he? He feared that had he left his resignation to be announced by the leader’s office, it would have been spun differently. (Given that Hilary Benn had to clarify that he had not been told not to speak his mind, after Corbyn Central had briefed the opposite, Doughty was right to be worried.)
Whether we like it or not, we live in an age in which public lives – and puddles – are played out on television, Twitter and Periscope. Barring a few notable exceptions, Parliament is no longer the dominant forum for debate or for a dramatic announcement. Doughty is not, if he will forgive me, the most recognisable or well-known of MPs. Why shouldn’t he get the exposure? The public wants our politicians, like our celebrities, to share everything, to be something other than, if you like, as dull as puddlewater. MPs should be forgiven for playing along.
Some politicians are more adept than others at this new game. I will not get into the sleazy text scandal involving the Rochdale Labour MP Simon Danczuk, but before that story broke he courted the media like any minor celebrity. There is nothing wrong with this on face value: it is a more professional version of what his colleagues do less well, from putting out a press release about a constituency visit to doing a glossy interview with GQ. But did Danczuk cross the line when, as he admitted last week, he received £1,100 from a picture agency that sold pictures of him to red-top newspapers? Should public servants receive such publicity dividends simply for being an MP?
It seems wrong, but if we criticise Danczuk for taking the money – and it is from a private company, not public funds – then we should do the same to MPs who receive money for writing articles, after-dinner speeches and, like Corbyn’s ally Diane Abbott, TV appearances on the publicly funded broadcaster. While it may not be wrong, or gutter politics, it is unseemly, and, like a muddy puddle, rather murky.
Starving Syrians cannot wait
The pictures of emaciated and dying children and adults from the Syrian town of Madaya, which has been blockaded by the Assad government, should shame the world. So, why isn’t there more urgency from the UK government?
In a letter to the Prime Minister on 8 January, Lord Ashdown and Labour MP Jo Cox, a former head of policy for Oxfam, said the UN was not being firm enough in trying to get aid into the town. Cox says that aid is still not getting through despite a deal between the UN and Damascus, and that the RAF, which has the capability and is in the region, could carry out emergency food drops.
The response from No 10 to this letter was that the images are “heart-rending” and that funding for more aid to Syrian refugees will be secured at a London conference next month. But for the starving and dying of Madaya, next month is too long to wait.
Those special phone calls
The newly released transcripts of phone calls between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton confirm many things about their relationship – the then US President was the joker, while Blair was all British seriousness, always trying to move the conversation on from banter.
But in two phone calls Clinton also reveals his admiration for the then Chancellor Gordon Brown. It was October 1998, when relations between Blair and Brown were more cordial than they later became. The President said Brown “did a hell of a job” talking to international finance ministers ahead of a G7 meeting, and also praised his suggestion of a new version of the post-war economic agreement at Bretton Woods, to prevent a worldwide financial crisis (although quite clearly it didn’t work out as planned). Blair responded by saying that his No 11 rival was “bloody bright, isn’t he?”.
The transcript does not show, of course, whether this was said through gritted teeth.
Talking to the animals
I have never been the most natural person with animals or birds – my only pet as a child was a goldfish – but last week I found myself talking to a baby robin that had got its head and feet stuck in the netting of one of my allotment neighbours.
Before running to get my secateurs to release it, I found myself involuntarily saying to the stricken bird: “Don’t worry, I will set you free.” It couldn’t have possibly understood, but I carried on talking to it as I cut the netting before it was finally released and could fly off.
Now we have my daughter’s class hamster to stay for the weekend, I might have re-deploy my inter-species linguistic skills to tell it to stop gnawing at its cage all night.