AMANDA PLATELL: Don't pity the predators - protect their victims

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Barbara Hewson is now advocating reducing the age of consent to 13 to 'end the persecution of old men'

Barbara Hewson is a distinguished civil liberties barrister. She’s championed the rights of women and the disabled, among other important causes.

So it is all the more astonishing that she is now advocating reducing  the age of consent to 13 to ‘end the persecution of old men’.

She made her comments in light of what she calls the ‘post-Savile witch-hunting of ageing celebs’, which she says has echoes of persecution in the old Soviet Union.

Ms Hewson, 52, even went as far as to claim that sports pundit and presenter Stuart Hall’s sex crimes were low-level misdemeanours, despite the serial sex offender admitting to 14 assaults, one on a girl of nine.

It is unclear whether Ms Hewson is married or has children, yet surely if she did have a 13-year-old daughter she would fight like a lioness to protect her from predatory men, let alone condone her child having consensual legal sex at that age.

On her Twitter account in May, she posted: ‘Seriously having a problem that a kiss of a 13yo leads to a conviction. What planet are folk on? Embarrassing. The pervs are the prosecutors.’

What a mixed-up world she lives in. The ‘pervs’ are paedophiles like Stuart Hall who prey on young girls; the  prosecutors the ones who are there to protect the vulnerable. 

Girls grow up at different speeds but, as many sociologists observe, one of the greatest crises facing young girls now is their early sexualisation.

  More... Outrage at barrister who called Stuart Hall's crimes 'low level' Police in 'secret arrest' row over Tarbuck after concealing comedian's arrest for almost two weeks EXCLUSIVE: Now police quiz Jimmy Tarbuck. Comedian arrested over alleged sex attack on young boy during the 1970s Behind the bonhomie, a cunning and amoral philanderer: Revelations of his predatory past are not just a personal tragedy for Hall, but also for his family

Bullied by boys — who are often inspired by online porn — to have sex before they are ready, this generation is bombarded by sexual messages. It is our duty as parents, families, law-makers and as a society to shield them.

The age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 in the late 19th century to protect children from exploitation by men who sought sex with pre-pubescent girls. So why on earth is one of our leading female barristers seeking to remove such protections today? 

Ms Hewson’s dismissal of Stuart Hall’s attacks on girls as trivial is an insult not just to every woman he assaulted, but all other young victims, too.

Astonishing: Ms Hewson's dismissal of Stuart Hall's attacks on girls as trivial is an insult not just to every woman he assaulted, but all other young victims, too

Her belief that 13 should become the age of consent has infuriated decent people. It is depressing enough that girls of 13 and 14 are already having sex, despite 16 being the legal age of consent.Lower that limit by law, and sexual predators will be grooming girls of 11 and 12. It’s a paedophiles’ charter.

Despite a barrage of criticism, Ms Hewson stands by her views. ‘Like  Voltaire,’ she wrote, ‘we must defend the right to express our opinions.’

She’s right, we must. But surely she should properly consider the consequences of her views on vulnerable young girls the next time she decides to exercise her right to free speech.


Kate Moss defends her right to a tan as she is unveiled as the face  and bottom of top fake tanning brand  St Tropez. ‘It makes me feel more confident, you just feel better and you look much healthier,’ she says. Yes, and pushing 40, it also hides the thread veins in your legs and makes you look slimmer.


Explaining his decision to cut short his report on the Queen’s Speech for a eulogy about Sir Alex Ferguson, BBC political editor Nick Robinson insists the football manager is the ‘greatest living Briton’. ‘As someone paid to observe and analyse leaders for a living, I never saw one to match Ferguson,’ he said. Time for a long lie down in a dark room, Nick.

Simply the best? BBC political editor Nick Robinson insists Sir Alex Ferguson is the 'greatest living Briton'


They say actresses on screen are often unrecognisable from the way they really look, but have you seen the stills of a handsome, youthful looking Leonardo DiCaprio in his new movie? In real life, he looks 20 years older and 20lb heavier. Less the Great Gatsby and more the great fatsby.


Former Archbishop of York Lord Hope has been attacked for  not reporting to police allegations of child sex abuse by an ex-Dean of Manchester Cathedral. His defence is that it was dealt with by the Church, and that there is no automatic duty to refer such cases to police.

While that may be true, surely he had a moral duty to do so.


Hot on the stilettoed heels of their turkey of a stage show, Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls have decided to drop plans for a world tour after Posh refused to take part. ‘They couldn’t take the risk of it being a flop,’ an insider said. ‘The Spice Girls could only ever go out on a high.’ 

Er, they broke up donkey’s years ago and it’s been downhill for all of them except Victoria ever since.

  Too much: Inspired by the punk theme, Sarah Jessica Parker turned up at the Met Ball in New York this week looking like an extra from Mad Max

SJP goes OTT!

Inspired by the punk theme, Sarah Jessica Parker turned up at the Met Ball in New York this week looking like an extra from Mad Max. Her Sex And The City alter ego Carrie would have died with embarrassment, as did her fans. But then SJP has never graduated from the TV series to anything worthwhile.

She even managed to mangle the movie of Allison Pearson’s clever novel I Don’t Know How She Does It. In SATC she was a fabulous, funky clothes horse. Now she just looks like a horse.

The formidable Sharon Osbourne is returning to The X Factor judging panel. At 60, it’s wonderful to see her taking centre stage, alongside that old woman Simon Cowell. Sharon has already seen off Dannii Minogue and now, it seems, Tulisa too. As for the remaining female judge, Nicole Scherzinger, if I were her, I’d be afraid, very afraid.

Royal Watch

Much has been made of the Queen’s decision to send Charles to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in her place. Then we  had his appearance at  the State Opening  of Parliament. Yet surely the most astounding aspect of all this is that Camilla was at his side (as she will be in Sri Lanka), wearing a champagne-coloured Bruce Oldfield frock so as not to upstage the Queen’s traditional white. Once the most hated woman in Britain, she has quietly and diligently rehabilitated herself. But part of Camilla’s appeal  is that she’s not a glamourpuss. She has a face that looks like it’s enjoyed life and a figure to match. It finally feels as though she’s one of us.

They turned up in their hundreds to greet Prince Harry in Washington DC, the girls lining the streets no doubt disappointed  that this time he had  his clothes on. Truly  Diana’s son, he charmed everyone from children to the First Lady. Like us, Americans  have forgiven Harry his ‘strip billiards’ incident in Las Vegas — until the  next time.

The slimline Royal Family has sidelined hangers-on like partying Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, but surely there should be a larger role for the Countess of Wessex. Sophie unveiled the Bevin Boys memorial to the lads castigated as cowards after being forced to stay home during the war and work in the mines. Like most of us, she was moved to tears: a very worthy royal indeed, and thus far as unsung as those boys she saluted this week.

Has Katie gone Coco? Normal life? Suri has been snapped wearing designer clothes, make-up, nail polish and high heels

When she whisked her daughter,  Suri, away from Tom Cruise and the menacing influence of Scientology, Katie Holmes said she was determined to give her little girl a normal life.

Since then, Suri has been snapped wearing designer clothes, make-up, nail polish and high heels. Her shoe collection alone is worth £150,000. Now the seven-year-old has reportedly landed a £1.5 million deal to release her own fashion range. 

I’m not sure what’s worse: being brainwashed by a cult that thinks we are all descended from aliens or a mother who thinks her little girl is descended from Coco Chanel.

Westminster Noticeboard...After rescuing a young woman who  fell off her bicycle, and then mysteriously disappearing from the scene, Ed Miliband has been dubbed SuperEd. One vote won, then,  but we all know  what wearing your underpants on the outside did for John Major.

One of Dave’s more vacuous A-list babes, a chick-lit author who  quit two years after becoming an MP and is remembered only for her facelift and ability to promote herself, Louise Mensch now reveals she  suffers from attention deficit disorder. When  it comes to Mensch’s mega-ego, there’s  only a deficit problem when she’s not getting enough attention.

The former Tory Minister Lord (Norman) Fowler says that the persecution of gay men and lesbians abroad was the reason Parliament had to approve the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Perhaps it would be  a better idea if the Government simply  cut the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money dished out  in aid to those regimes that imprison and torture gay people, rather than redefining marriage in this country.

Brave, yes, but Angelina Jolie is misleading women...

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Angelina Jolie’s revelation that she had a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of breast cancer has provoked a cruel backlash online.

Some have accused her of being an attention seeker — a former sex goddess who’s past her sell-by date and is now trying to use her medical problems to boost her public profile.

Others — and I fall firmly into this category — believe it was incredibly courageous to share the details of her dramatic surgery, especially when it’s not yet over. She is due to have a hysterectomy and her ovaries removed to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer.

Online backlash: Some have accused Angelina Jolie of being an attention seeker - a former sex goddess who's past her sell-by date and is now trying to use her medical problems to boost her public profile

She is doing it for her children, she says. She did not want them to suffer as she did losing her mother to breast cancer when she was just 56.

But perhaps the most striking thing Angelina said was that she did not feel any less of a woman after having her breasts removed. ‘I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.’

  More... Twitter users slam professional troll who accuses Angelina Jolie of 'making a spectacle' out of her double mastectomy Haunted by her mother's death at 56 - terrified of suffering the same fate: The moving story behind Angelina's radical double mastectomy... and why she now can't wait to wed Brad Brad Pitt emerges for business meetings after supporting 'heroic' fiancée Angelina Jolie through double mastectomy ordeal

Stirring words, but ones, I fear, which may have a rather hollow ring for the 122,000 British women who have mastectomies, breast surgery or hysterectomies each year. For most, these operations herald a staggering diminution of one’s sense of self and femininity, not to mention the crippling fatigue and terrible depression that often follows such radical surgery.

The best thing Angelina can do is to acknowledge what a traumatic ordeal she has been through and take time off work to rest and recover

Not Angelina, apparently. Four days after her breasts were removed, we are told she was working with ‘bountiful energy’ on a new film project, while six surgical drains dangled from her chest, fastened to an elastic belt.

She even accompanied Foreign Secretary William Hague to the Congo to highlight rape in war zones.

Brave or deluded? If Angelina wanted to set a more honest example, she would not behave like Lara Croft. She would slow down, take time to recuperate and nurture herself back to full strength over a period of months. 

To imply, as she has done, that it is possible to bounce back in a few days places an unfair burden on those women who struggle physically and mentally in the aftermath of such major and life-changing surgery.

Instead of the sympathy and understanding they deserve from bosses, colleagues, friends and family, there is a worry they will now be expected to ‘bounce back’ in a few days, too.

I’ve no doubt Angelina is sincere in her devotion to her children, but the best thing she could do for them — and for all families in the same position — is to acknowledge what a traumatic ordeal she has been through and take time off work to rest and recover and just be a mum. I, for one, would admire her all the more.


Kate Moss says her beauty regime is little more than plunging her face into icy water. Any chance she could keep it there?

  Becks was the Blair of football

Announcing his retirement, David Beckham says he’s hurt that some people don’t celebrate what a brilliant footballer he was and instead remember the ‘other things’.

What ‘other things’? That affair with Rebecca Loos? The red card for kicking Diego Simeone in the 1998 World Cup? The over-stuffed pants? Or just the awesome greed in promoting Brand Beckham?

Take your pick. 

His wife Victoria says he is ‘not just an inspiration to myself and our children, but millions of people worldwide’. 

To millions more, Beckham will always be the Tony Blair of football — a good-looking and gifted bloke who, spurred on by a ghastly and grasping wife, morphed into a preening egotist who was far more interested in making millions on the global stage than on public service to his country.

  Throwing in the scowl Surprise: Jennifer, John Cleese's fourth wife, was pictured at the premiere of The Great Gatsby looking pencil-thin, scowling and wearing an extravagant designer gown

When John Cleese fell in love with jewellery designer Jennifer Wade it was because she was a happy, jeans-wearing, down-to-earth girl — albeit one who was 32 years his junior. So how surprising to see Jennifer, now his fourth wife, at the premiere of The Great Gatsby looking pencil-thin, scowling and wearing an extravagant designer gown. 

I do hope Cleese remembered to get a proper pre-nup this time.

+ BBC Watch +

+ The Beeb was forced to make a grovelling apology for its disgraceful Newsnight programme that wrongly accused the Armed Forces' charity Help For Heroes of misusing funds.

The charity estimated the resulting damaging publicity cost them £100,000 in lost donations. Forget the apology, the BBC should refund them the money.

+ Alan Hansen quits Match Of The Day, for which he was paid £1.5 million, just as we learn Gary Lineker has renegotiated a seven-figure deal. What a pointless waste of our money. You could get an orangutan to present a football show and men would still watch it in their millions.

Protection racket Only one low-ranking social worker has been sacked after six men were imprisoned for grooming, trafficking, drugging and repeatedly raping girls as young as 11. One mother cried: ‘Someone needs to take the blame.’

And she’s right. The villains of this piece are not just the men who abused her daughter, but the social workers who turned a blind eye despite the wealth of evidence and the police who failed to protect the young victims even when they found the courage to report their abuse.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that some of the blame must also lie with the mothers and fathers of these girls. 

Yes, as one of the victims’ parents describe in the Mail today, the girls were often impossibly hard to control. But the first line of defence for any child must surely be their family — however difficult that duty may be.

  Give that girl a break The secret to a happy marriage, according to Rod Stewart, is to hire a nanny three times a week to free him to seduce his wife Penny with champagne and candlelight

The secret to a happy marriage, according to wrinkly Rod Stewart, 68, is to hire a nanny three times a week to free him to seduce his wife Penny, 42, with champagne and candlelight. What’s the betting there are nights Penny would rather do the babysitting and leave the nanny to look after Rod’s libido?

Westminster Noticeboard... + Margaret Hodge accuses Google of being ‘evil’ for paying just £7.3 million tax on its £3 billion UK earnings. Surely the real evil Google commits is refusing to block the plethora of pornography websites that paedophiles and sex offenders can find so easily — an issue on which our politicians are surprisingly silent.

+ The PM spent the week in the U.S., holding a Press conference in which the President affectionately called him ‘David’ and he responded with a blushing ‘Barack’. If President Reagan had addressed Lady Thatcher as ‘Maggie’ in public, she would have floored him with her handbag.

+ Chris Huhne’s vindictive ex-wife Vicky Pryce announced she is penning a memoir, including her time in jail, entitled Prisonomics. It is aptly being published by Biteback. When will this sad woman realise that until she lets go and gets on with her life, she will be imprisoned by her own bitterness.

  Equality cuts both ways

Myleene Klass’s former husband Graham Quinn has been pilloried for seeking a slice of her £7.5 million fortune, with the suggestion that if he had any pride, he’d walk away with nothing. Why should he? He’s the father of her two children, and if the roles were reversed and he was the departed wife, no one would bat an eyelid. 

Welcome to the world of equality, girls.


Rick Stein, Marco Pierre White, Heston Blumenthal . . . now the Great British Bake-off’s Paul Hollywood has joined the ranks of celebrity chefs who’ve ended up in the soup over sex scandals. He has left his wife amid rumours that he’s got a bit too hot with his luscious co-presenter on the U.S. version of the show. You might expect such behaviour from an ego maniac chef. But Hollywood seemed different — kinder, gentler, more cultured. Perfect for the traditional values Bake-Off celebrates. I hope the demure and blissfully married Mary Berry tells him where to stuff his pastry brush.


Delighted to see Olivia Colman collecting her two Baftas. She has come from nowhere but is now suddenly everywhere — Broadchurch, The Accused, Twenty Twelve, The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher.

Olivia is only 39, yet is already one of our best-loved actresses and is even being tipped as the new Judi Dench. No wonder they killed off M in the last Bond movie.

Superstorm Sandy - US election: The real dangers facing America are hatred, division and a collapsing political system

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Before it hit land, one of America’s innumerable southern evangelical TV preachers proclaimed Superstorm Sandy as ‘a divine commentary upon our sinful country’.

Next Tuesday, with the Almighty having spoken in a violent voice of wind and waves, we shall discover which of the nation’s presidential candidates He passed judgment on.

An astonishing number of Americans, almost all living in the vast middle of the country, really do  believe God takes a hand in their politics, just as they are sure He frowns on Muslims, gays, socialists, gun control supporters and most folks on the east and west coasts (foremost among them the citizens of that sink of liberal iniquity, New York City).

Devastation: 'Superstorm Sandy' has caused huge damage to property in New York

'Divine commentary': One evangelical preacher said the storm was God's punishment for the nation's sins

But it is unnecessary to be an evangelical Christian to see that the devastating storm may have fractionally tilted this exceptionally close election to the advantage of Barack Obama.

The spectacle of him being presidential, touring flood-stricken New Jersey and co-ordinating relief and recovery efforts, should boost the Democrats.

But the fact that such a random event could prove to be a crucial factor in who occupies the White House for the next four years emphasises the profound divisions in this country.

For more than ten years, Democrats and Republicans have glared at and abused each other across a yawning chasm.

Last Saturday, I was in Chicago’s old Hilton Hotel for the first time since I reported the bitter and violent Democratic Convention of 1968, when Vietnam war protesters battled with Mayor Richard Daley’s cops on the streets outside, and clouds of tear gas drifted into the lobby. That was also the year when assassins’ bullets killed John F Kennedy’s brother Bobby and civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Yet, although I vividly recall the passions and turbulence, nobody then suggested that the very process of democracy was imperilled.

Passions and turbulence: Demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago's Hilton Hotel

The truth is that Americans have always taken pride in their system and its separation of powers between the Presidency, Congress and Supreme Court. Now, however, serious and thoughtful people argue that the constitution created in 1776 is cracking open at the seams.

A conservative-dominated Supreme Court routinely delivers judgments which seem partisan and occasionally even whimsical. For example, few justices display sympathy for even the mildest gun controls — though domestic shootings are a plague. Indeed, recent massacres in Wisconsin and Colorado did not prompt restrictions on weapons, but, instead, new rules in some colleges which allow students to carry guns on campus ‘for self-protection’.

Historically, the Supreme Court’s justices have been forces for national unity — for instance, on the issue of civil rights. Yet today their collective wisdom is being questioned as never before.

Even more serious is the situation in Congress.

Traditionally, the U.S. government is carried on through relentless horse-trading between the White House and the two parties on Capitol Hill — a process of which President Lyndon Johnson was a master in the 1960s. In recent years, though, bargaining has broken down.

Both parties, and especially the Republicans, behave in a way that sees them reflexively oppose anything proposed by the other. Such stonewalling has inevitably hampered action to curb the huge fiscal deficit.

Stonewalling: Each side's unwillingness to give ground to the other has led to political paralysis

For their part, most Democrats reject cuts in a welfare system that has become almost as unaffordable as Britain’s.

The Republicans, meanwhile, scorned a proposal for a bipartisan committee to address the deficit. They reject all tax increases and ignore the blatant unfairness of Mitt Romney paying just 14 per cent last year on millions earned from his investments, while most middle-class Americans pay more than double that rate.

At the same time, the poor and middle-class in America have seen their incomes shrink in recent years while the rich have become colossally richer. Official statistics show wealth divisions at a historic high.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says: ‘Inequality in our society has become so extreme that it is adversely affecting our is no longer just a moral issue.’

This is a reality I was contemplating in Chicago this week as I looked at the glittering palaces of wealth that crowd the downtown skyline while, at the same time, beggars haunt Michigan Avenue.

This is not the only social problem.

Republicans have been resistant to raising taxes, and defended the 14per cent paid by Mitt Romney

Marriage has become a critical social divider. Around 90 per cent of the children of America’s most affluent people — the richest 20 per cent — live in households with both parents, while fewer than a third of the children of America’s poorest enjoy such stability.

I was also struck by the uniquely American election phenomenon of corporate bosses urging their workers to vote Republican.

One example is tycoon David Siegel, who created a holiday time-share empire and became notorious thanks to the documentary movie The Queen Of Versailles, which followed his wife’s attempt to build the largest house in America, modelled on Louis XIV’s palace.

He has told his 7,000 employees: ‘Another four years of the same presidential administration is a threat to jobs. If any new taxes are levied on me or my company, as our current president plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company.’

The boss of an auto parts company in Grand Rapids also warned his 2,300 workers about the higher healthcare and tax costs affecting their wages if Obama is re-elected.

For his part, Stiglitz rejects the idea that American capitalism promotes social mobility. He says: ‘While rags-to-riches stories still grip our imagination, the fact is that the life chances of a young American are more dependent on the wealth and income of his parents than in other advanced countries.’

Blinkered: Democrats reject cuts to a welfare system as unsustainable as Britain's

He says the rich can no longer justify their rewards on the basis of ‘trickle-down’ economics — the idea that their fortunes benefit everybody downstream. ‘The recent history of America, in which the rich have gotten richer while most Americans have got worse off, disproves this patently false notion.’

Stiglitz points to the erosion of middle-class incomes, and argues that a Romney victory will further widen inequality.

Romney, though, believes he can deliver economic growth. Yet his plans include slashing investment in education, non-defence science and technology, which are seen by others as vital to future prosperity.

Defending his commitment to dismantle Obama’s universal healthcare scheme, Romney says that lack of health insurance does not kill people. But this is untrue: states where the public Medicaid programme has been expanded show sharp drops in mortality.

Some say that if Romney is elected, he will abandon promised tax cuts. But it is unlikely that fellow Republicans in Congress would let him do so.

This is proof of what many fear is an example of the machinery of democracy breaking down.

  More... New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorses Obama because 'he's the best to tackle climate change which caused Superstorm Sandy' Obama back on campaign trail after Sandy says now is not time for 'petty differences' - then attacks Romney 'All white folks are going to hell': Explosive cry of civil rights icon Reverend Joseph Lowery at rally for Obama (who invited him to give benediction at President's inauguration)

Indeed, Republican filibustering in Congress was rewarded with gains in the 2010 Congressional elections — the result of Obama-hating voters’ love of their representatives’ wrecking tactics. 

A recently published book (entitled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism) despairs of this paralysis.    

The authors say they thought before the 2008 banking crisis that such a seismic event would make Congress behave more responsibly. But they now realise they were wrong and say: ‘America got the crisis — what the country didn’t get was any semblance of a well-functioning democracy.’

The tragedy is that almost nobody in today’s American politics wants to meet on the middle ground, which is where most useful things get done.

The final, ill-fitting piece in the constitutional jigsaw is the electoral college which chooses the president.

The winner on Tuesday won’t be decided by a clear majority of the overall national vote, but by individual victories in the 50 states.

Presidential: Barack Obama may have benefited fractionally from Hurricane Sandy

Each state has a number of members roughly proportionate to its size, but Romney could get a majority of votes cast nationally and still lose in the electoral college, as happened to Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

Should that happen, the Republicans will claim their man has been robbed and politics will become even more poisoned.

The consequence of all this is that whoever wins next week, it will be phenomenally difficult for the president to get anything decisive done.

Even if Obama gets back, his administration will continue to be hamstrung by Republican dominance of the House of Representatives.

And if Romney wins, the Democrats — who will almost certainly retain a Senate majority — will avenge themselves for recent Republican obstructionism by seeking to block his more radical social and fiscal policies.

A very rich, very earnest Chicago woman said to me last Saturday: ‘The American people must learn to live and work together again.’

      More from Max Hastings...   We've got enough problems at home without charging into yet another foreign bloodbath 27/05/13   Enemy within that hates our tolerance: MAX HASTINGS on a menace more chilling than any foreign threat 23/05/13   If only we could all silence other people's noise like Queen Helen: MAX HASTINGS on a majestic stand against the selfish pests whose din blights modern life 06/05/13   Students put at risk for an ego-boosting stunt and why we need a total purge of BBC top brass 15/04/13   The only man in the Cabinet: If Britain prospers in years to come, it will be thanks to her. If the nation languishes, it will be because we have wasted her legacy 09/04/13   Rural life WAS grim (although in a lot of ways it was richer): MAX HASTINGS backs producers for avoiding glossy TV costume drama version of The Village for honest one 02/04/13   One of the nastiest and most immoral political acts in modern times 25/03/13   BUDGET 2013: George may seem unlovable but the smirking alternative would lead us to perdition, writes MAX HASTINGS 20/03/13   If they had a scintilla of decency, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and John Scarlett would not show their faces in public again 19/03/13   VIEW FULL ARCHIVE

She undoubtedly meant what she said, and many of her compatriots share the same lofty ideal. But it is going to be tough indeed to make this happen, when the nation is divided by such implacable economic, social, religious — and racial — differences.

In right-wing circles, racism has become almost respectable again. Indeed, I heard an academic make a cheap crack about how ‘Obama has gotten himself a good tan’.

It is against this backdrop that Hurricane Sandy is dominating the headlines in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote.

Both candidates have done their utmost to avoid appearing to exploit the storm, but Obama could scarcely have done his duty as the country’s leader without getting some votes out of it.

In contrast, Romney, who wants to shrink the U.S. government, is on record as wanting to cut back the Federal Emergency Management Agency... which is the very department now responsible for post-Sandy recovery.

The vast majority of Americans can see that when a major catastrophe strikes, only central government can deal with the problems.

But the truth is that when this hurricane crisis has passed and this election is over, the deep divisions in American society will persist, with incalculable consequences for the nation.

I have a profound faith in the American genius. But unless the people and politicians of this great country can learn to find common purpose on big issues, its future will be blighted by their frighteningly divisive hatreds.

The BBC can be brilliant - despite its shambolic army of suits and bean-counters

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Let me assist you to clamber over the heaped corpses of the BBC’s failed, and now sacked, senior executives. I will then tell a fable that reveals what a mess the Corporation has become.

A broadcaster friend of mine recently moved into the BBC’s absurd, new £1 billion television palace alongside Broadcasting House.

He found, on arrival, that the vast open office floor had no coat-hooks or wastepaper baskets: trendy designers consider them inappropriate to their 21st-century vision.

Time for change: The BBC is too vast, bloated and far too management-heavy for any one person or even a group of people effectively to govern

My friend sent a note to George Entwistle, then newly-installed as Director-General, wishing him well and begging him to do something about the coat-hook nonsense.

Entwistle wrote back, thanking him for his good wishes, but regretting that action on such a matter would be beyond his powers.

This story seemed merely comic when I heard it two months ago. But it now seems an appropriate metaphor for the shambles at the BBC.

It is too vast and bloated, too diffuse, far too management-heavy for any one person or even a group of people effectively to govern.

An endless succession of little men and women is appointed to its big jobs. The most senior of them could not even decree the introduction of coat-hooks before he himself was pushed into a wastepaper basket with a cheque for £1.3 million.

Disposable: The people who make today's TV and radio shows are overwhelmingly short-term contract workers, used and dropped at the whim of BBC commissioning editors

Before any decision is made about who should be the BBC’s next Director-General, a radical rethink is needed about what the Corporation is. We all say, and sincerely believe, that it still does many things wonderfully well — most of them in Radio 4.

But it is quite unnecessary for them all to be done within a single vast edifice, which is not merely out of control but uncontrollable.

It might as well be argued that all British subsidised stage drama should be produced in a single grand National Theatre, or that a state music directorate should run all the country’s bands, orchestras and string quartets. The BBC worked much better when it was much smaller, as it should now become again.

Whether by a charter revision or merely by administrative decision with government approval, it should dramatically downsize itself: shedding local radio stations; restoring the independence of its World Service; cutting loose its commercial arms; and — above all — axeing whole swathes of managers.

When I first walked into the BBC Club at Lime Grove Studios back in 1963, nine-tenths of the people drinking at the bar were creative staff.

Rabbit in the headlights: George Entwistle, on screen, showed that he was unfit to be the public face and voice of the Corporation, as every Director-General must be

Today, every BBC facility in the land is dominated by bureaucrats: much of the broadcast output — including the notorious Newsnight paedophilia investigation — has been sub-contracted to independent production companies geographically and spiritually remote from Broadcasting House.

In olden days, those of us lucky enough to work for ‘the Corp’, which then seemed one of the most exciting places in Britain, were part of a culture we loved and took pride in.

Sure, hidden away in back passages there were ‘suits’ and bean-counters who did the accountancy for the turbulent herd of presenters, producers, researchers and technical staff. But nobody doubted that the people who mattered were programme-makers.

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Today, all that is turned on its head.

A Dalek army of management consultants was turned loose on the BBC in the 1990s, in the disastrous era of the then Director-General John Birt’s dominance.

He deserves some credit for getting the Corporation into the internet age, but at the price of putting ‘suits’ in charge and squandering vast sums of taxpayers’ money, not least on rocketing executive salaries, starting with his own.

His successors did even worse, succumbing to Labour government bludgeoning to move much of the organisation to the wastelands at huge expense, and abandoning TV Centre in West London in favour of a new production centre built on some of the most expensive real estate  in Britain.

The people who make today’s TV and radio shows are overwhelmingly short-term contract workers, used and dropped at the whim of BBC commissioning editors.

Most of those with permanent staff status, job security and pensions are managers.

At least a third of these people — gender commissars, race monitors, laptop- twiddlers and number-crunchers — could be thrown overboard tomorrow without the smallest effect on programme output, except to make broadcasters feel a joyous surge of liberation.

Some apologists argue that newspapers are today attacking the BBC with disproportionate fervour, in revenge for the shameless glee with which the Corporation’s reporters have covered the phone- hacking scandal at News International and the Leveson inquiry that followed.

It is certainly true that newspaper journalists recoil from the prospect of Lord Justice Leveson recommending statutory regulation of the Press when the BBC’s staff, who fall outside his remit, have shown themselves capable of equally disgraceful follies and excesses.

But it is plain that something is seriously wrong with the BBC (which does have a statutory regulator), and with the sort of people appointed to its leadership.

One look at George Entwistle on screen, a rabbit in the headlights, showed that he was unfit to be the public face and voice of the Corporation, as every Director-General must be.

Yet this was the man Chris Patten and the BBC Trust had just put in charge.

Entwistle’s subordinates who stepped aside yesterday were no more fit for their roles.

I should declare a sort of personal interest.

Though I never applied for either job, in years gone by I was myself tempted by the notion of becoming Director-General or Chairman of the BBC. I thought I could have done the job better than some of the incumbents, just as veteran presenter David Dimbleby has always believed of himself.

Today, both of us are too old, quite apart from our other shortcomings. My friend Sir Christopher Bland, who was once BBC Chairman, told me quite rightly ten years ago that I would have been a hopeless Director-General, because I would have lacked patience to sit through three-hour meetings to discuss whether the Corporation employs enough disabled gays — I exaggerate a little, but not much.

Moreover, it has become plain that no one person can manage this grotesquely overblown organisation.

  More... ‘Over-managed and the bosses speak gobbledegook’: Veteran BBC presenter David Dimbleby hits out at Beeb's culture BBC considered firing George Entwistle if he refused to make ‘honourable’ offer to resign as fallen director general is ‘rewarded for failure’ with £450,000 pay-off 'Winnie the Pooh would have been more effective': BBC chief faces calls to quit after humiliating interview with his own presenter in wake of Newsnight sex abuse scandal

When Chris Patten steps down as Chairman — and I believe he must stay in his post to see this crisis through — he should be succeeded by some such figure as Sir John Rose, the tough, brilliant former chief executive of Rolls-Royce, with an explicit mandate to preside over a drastic shrinkage of the Corporation.

Let the licence fee continue, if an alternative system of funding seems impossibly radical, but it should be cut.

In appointing a new Director-General of a slimline, current affairs-focused BBC — for it would be unthinkable to sacrifice that wonderful brand name — the Trust should look for the qualities of leadership, grip, journalistic skill and public presentation that have been conspicuously lacking in the recent past. No ‘suit’ of either sex need apply.

In the months ahead, there is a danger that inertia will regain its hold: that the Government will decide, with so many  other problems on its plate, that it cannot face precipitating a big bust-up at Broadcasting House.

Such a decision would be a serious misfortune for the British people, to whom the old, trustworthy, decent, sometimes boring but sometimes brilliant old-style Auntie BBC meant so much.

The existing set-up is broken. Radical change is needed in the new era of broadcasting. Some big men and women must be found to implement this, in place of the overpaid time-servers who have egregiously failed.


MPs' expenses, and the stench of slurry that won't go away in Westminster

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Politicians complain they do not receive sufficient respect from the Press or the public, and I am sometimes tempted to sympathise. Heaven knows, we all want to encourage better people to stand for public office. To achieve that, we have to treat them decently.

But every time we consider the conduct of some members of the House of Commons, and especially of its Speaker, John Bercow, it is plain why MPs earn such contempt.

The latest scandal has been caused by  censorship of the names of 51 MPs’ landlords from published parliamentary expenses claims. The MPs have successfully persuaded the expenses regulator, with Bercow’s support, that revelation of their identities and housing arrangements ‘could place their personal security at risk’.

Censorship: Commons Speaker John Bercow has allowed details of 51 MPs' housing expenses to be kept secret for 'security reasons'

For a moment, this story seems merely comic. It conjures up visions of Al Qaeda terrorists trailing Lib Dem backbenchers home or crazed women stalking handsome Tory junior ministers they accuse of having done them wrong.

Come off it. No one could recognise 51 MPs in an identity parade, far less take the trouble to rough them up for voting the wrong way in the last Commons division.

In reality, of course, personal security has nothing to do with redaction of these names from the expenses report. That argument is a lie, a fraud, a cheat on the electorate.

Some MPs are merely terrified the media will discover the details of their taxpayer-funded fiddles and mutual backscratches.

Some rent out London properties they already own, pocketing the cash, and claim from the public purse up to £20,000 a year to take another flat. Others let flats to each other. It is known that Labour MP Iain MacKenzie rents from colleague Linda Riordan, who herself claims for another property. Plenty of others do likewise.

The Speaker, who in 2009 was obliged to repay several thousand pounds of overclaimed housing expenses, has compounded the stench at Westminster by insisting all members of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, whose contracts expire in January, must reapply for their jobs.

Named and shamed: John Bercow's panel for considering applications to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority includes Peter Atkinson, who was implicated in the last expenses scandal

The IPSA members themselves are in no doubt this process is designed to squash or get rid of them. Scrutiny of applications would be overseen by a panel appointed by Bercow, which includes the former MP for Hexham, Peter Atkinson, who was named and shamed in the last expenses scandal.

Yet Bercow wants Atkinson involved in picking new standards overseers. The Speaker’s crass interventions have prompted four of the five IPSA members to protest by downing tools. They say they will not seek reappointment.

The sums of money involved in this squalid business of renting each other’s properties are not very large or very important, in the grand scheme of public expenditure.

It deserves to be emphasised that a  majority of MPs behave honestly, honourably and openly about expenses. But a seedy and significant minority do not. They seem  incapable of understanding why the public is infuriated by their behaviour.

Part of the trouble is their exaggerated sense of entitlement. They are paid a salary of £65,000 — and think this inadequate. Yet it is way above median earnings, and should enable them to support themselves decently, if not extravagantly.

They also make disproportionately small contributions to a final salary pension scheme more generous than any other in the public sector.

Honesty and integrity: Sir George Young would have been a much better candidate for the Speaker's chair

But they also want a 50 per cent increase in their £400-a-week housing allowance, to ensure that they can afford a decent residence within ‘a short walking distance of Westminster’, and avoid the indignity of taking public transport home after late-night sittings.

This is all potty. Politicians, even the  highest, often speak eloquently about their commitment to public service. But they are willing to fight tooth-and-nail to secure private sector pay rates for performing it.

Some critics of Parliament make a big  mistake by urging that being an MP should be acknowledged as a full-time job. There is not a shred of evidence that we were worse governed in the past, when almost every member had some other source of income. Many distinguished barristers had a second life in the Commons.

One of the things that has gone wrong with politics is that so many men and women today ascend to office, and even to Downing Street, having followed a career path from parliamentary researcher to special adviser to election as an MP without the slightest contact with what the rest of us call real life.

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Many MPs see the sort of money their friends and contemporaries earn in business or the professions, and have the cheek to say: ‘That’s how we deserve to be paid to live.’

No, sir. No, madam — or Ms, if you insist. If you want to devote your life to the manic ego trip that is politics, you need to recognise that you do not automatically qualify for an upper-middle-class lifestyle — which is what MPs are really demanding. Many lack the ability to achieve this in any other trade, so why should the taxpayer give it to them?

The Commons demeaned itself when it chose John Bercow as its Speaker, rejecting the candidacy of Sir George Young, a figure of unimpeachable honesty and integrity.

Bercow has become an object of mockery and a shop steward for some of Westminster’s least reputable inhabitants and practices.

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As long as MPs consider Bercow an appropriate arbiter, there is little chance the Commons will command respect.

It seems reasonable to compare the behaviour of some MPs with that of bankers. Though they make far less money, the politicians are equally blind to how the rest of society sees their behaviour and demands.

It is quite wrong of IPSA to have acceded to the demands of the 51 for their landlords’ names to be expunged from the published expenses record. That decision must not stand.

In Trollope’s Victorian political novel Phineas Finn, the young Irish MP has to make do with a garret until he secures junior government office. No one seriously expects modern MPs to accept such a hairshirt regime. But it will do them no harm to live in Lambeth or even Lewisham rather than in Lord North Street, SW1.

After the 2009 expenses scandal, Britain’s politicians declared solemnly that the sty would be cleansed; that nothing similar would be allowed to happen again. But three years on, pig slurry is still seeping under the doors of Westminster.

Rather than commit themselves to cleaning up the mess, some of our elected representatives are labouring only to conceal their wrongdoing.

Any system that allows them to do this is failing, and must be reformed.

Leveson inquiry: Yes, he got some things right, but it's a tragic blow to liberty and the public's right to know

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Yesterday was a bad day for the British Press, but a worse one for freedom. Lord Justice Leveson’s report catalogues misdeeds by some journalists that embarrass everyone who works in the newspaper industry.

Some people in our trade have behaved like wild beasts, and if they end up behind bars, that will be entirely just.

But Leveson’s remedy is to terminate  centuries of bold, brassy, often vulgar and disreputable — but also brave and important — British journalism and dress the Press in a tight, clumsy straitjacket of his own manufacture.

He describes his proposals as ‘self-regulation’ backed by law, yet the newspaper industry’s only active role in such an arrangement will be to pay the bills for it.

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Lord Justice Leveson has launched a wholly unguided missile. He is seen here with an executive summary of his report following an inquiry into media practices

Thoughtful: Mr Cameron considers the speech of Ed Miliband who pressed for all of Leveson's suggestions to be put in place, but the PM said alternatives must be explored

Leveson concedes that he is ‘firmly of the opinion that the British Press — all of it — serves the country very well for the vast majority of the time’. But under his new  system, ‘independent’ arbiters will have power to force it to behave ‘responsibly’ — though heaven knows how anyone short of Solomon on a good day will define this.

He demands what amounts to a new right to privacy, upholding the claims of such  people as Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, J. K. Rowling and Max Mosley to decide when they wish to have the tap of personal publicity turned on and off.

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The new regulators, says the report, ‘should . . . warn the Press . . . when an individual has made it clear that they do not welcome Press intrusion’ — which in the case of public figures would presumably mean whenever they are not promoting a book or movie.

Of course, it would be wrong to dismiss Sir Brian Leveson’s entire report as a waste of time. He is obviously right when he says that there have been far too many occasions when the Press has failed to observe its self-proclaimed ethical responsibilities.

Though he accepts the Mail’s campaign to expose the murderers of black teenager Stephen Lawrence as a great achievement, he is oblivious of the fact that the information that made it possible came from an off-the-record police tip-off, of the kind he deplores.

Grudge: Actor Hugh Grant, who has changed his Twitter name to 'Hacked off Hugh'

Self-interest: Max Mosley, the former President of the FIA

Mr Cameron said he did not think powerful state body Ofcom could oversee press regulation when its chief is appointed by ministers

He goes on to accuse newspapers of ‘betraying an unethical cultural indifference to the consequences of exposing private lives, and a failure to treat individuals with appropriate dignity and respect’ and says that a section of the Press ‘practises journalism which on occasion is deliberately, recklessly or negligently inaccurate’.

He catalogues some malpractices that are cringe-making even to people like me, who have worked all our lives in the industry — albeit a rather different side of it.

The tale of corporate misgovernance at News International makes particularly shocking reading and must deal a crippling blow to the credibility of Rupert Murdoch  and his family on both sides of  the Atlantic.

But the over-riding initial impression made by the conclusions of Leveson’s report is of their naivety.

They make it seem as if the judge has spent his career not in law courts, but in a monastery.

Centuries of brave and important journalism will be terminated and privacy laws will be misused by every crook in the land

A wise man would have sought to set the undoubted misdeeds of newspapers in a broader historical and social context.

He would have recognised that, whatever the sins and corrupt practices of sections of the modern Press, they are much less grave than those of the past, for instance the era of early 20th-century news-paper barons.

He would have seen that journalists’ shortcomings should properly be viewed against the background of the failures of politicians, lawyers, policemen — even judges, who sometimes commit shocking blunders, some of which have cost innocent people their freedom.

Yet Leveson throws the whole weight of his sympathy squarely and almost without reservation behind complainants about Press behaviour. In truth, he has launched a wholly unguided missile.

Indeed, the virulently anti-popular Press lobby group Hacked Off might have written his report themselves.

He castigates newspapers, but lays a blanket of innocence across all the other players in his story.

Though he catalogues shocking errors and failures by the police in investigating phone-hacking, he concludes: ‘I am satisfied that I have seen no basis for challenging at any stage the integrity of the police or that of the senior police officers involved.’ Instead, police merely made a series of ‘poor decisions, poorly executed’.

Reforms: Lord Justice Leveson (pictured delivering his verdict) called for sweeping changes in the law to regulate the 'outrageous' behaviour of the press

Bob and Sally Dowler, the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, attended the release of the Leveson report in central London today

This seems a remarkably charitable verdict on the behaviour of the  Met’s top brass, especially in investigating criminal behaviour at  News International.

I scarcely know anyone with first-hand knowledge of Britain’s police, including successive Home Secretaries, who have not, over the years, been deeply disturbed by the conduct and occasionally grave misconduct of certain senior officers with regard to some case or other.

Somewhere, Leveson lost his way in the course of his inquiry, which he allowed to roam untethered across the landscape for many months in a fashion quite unworthy of a competent judge.

Above all, he fails to understand that the central issue, that illegal phone-hacking and thus gross breaches of privacy reflected not a lapse of Press ethics, but large-scale criminality.

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The only organisation that ever was, or ever will be, capable of investigating such behaviour is the police.

It was Scotland Yard’s failure  to probe misconduct at News International properly in its review of the investigation in 2009 that allowed wrongdoing to continue for so long.

Some of us cannot agree with the learned judge that the police should be excused their investigatory failures merely because News International was unco-operative. The police handling of the case was scandalously negligent.

Now that a proper inquiry is being carried out belatedly, and arrests made, it is absolutely right and, indeed, essential that journalists and executives who committed criminal acts should face conviction and imprisonment.

But to introduce a new Press law to impose decent behaviour on the entire industry is far less useful than it would be to create the same sort of body to impose standards on policemen or lawyers, whose misdeeds have far more serious consequences for society.

It is precisely because politicians forged such close relations with News International and its senior executives that the company felt able to act as if it was above the law.

Of course, David Cameron called for Leveson because he found himself in a political hole — mortally embarrassed by his own wildly ill-judged relationships with senior Murdoch executives.

Against strong advice from those who knew their history, the Prime Minister had made one former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, his media chief, and another, Rebekah Brooks, his close friend.

When these relationships eventually ended in a firestorm generated by the malpractices at News International, the Prime Minister felt compelled to launch Leveson.

But from beginning to end, to some of us it has seemed wholly irrational to address a huge failure to enforce existing criminal law by an inquiry into media ethics followed by legislation to abolish Press freedom.

The only credible response to criminality is to fine or imprison the guilty. No regulatory body, including the one proposed by Leveson, can possibly do the job of the police.

Alastair Campbell had his evidence treated with great respect by Leveson and gleefully responded to the published report by saying the report had made sense of the 'mess the Press got themselves into'

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a separate statement from the PM in parliament today- suggesting they are not in agreement on the Leveson reports findings

And the price of creating such a body through legislation is to sacrifice the centuries-old tradition of a free Press on the altar of past police incompetence and politicians’ folly.

Leveson also highlights concerns that politicians and the Press ‘have traded power and influence in ways which are contrary to the public interest and out of public sight’.

Yet he then acquits senior politicians of blame in conducting  admittedly reckless relation- ships with senior figures at News International.

Lord Justice Leveson: Lack of wisdom

For example, Leveson finds that the special adviser of the then  Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had a long and improper dalliance with News International lobbyists about the firm’s planned BSkyB takeover. But he rejects criticism of the minister himself, whom many people at Westminster believed should have been sacked for his behaviour.

While castigating the Sun for publishing photographs of Prince Harry naked in Las Vegas, Leveson offers no answer whatever to the intractable reality that the internet daily perpetrates vastly worse excesses of taste and privacy, which are accessed by millions.

‘It is clear that the enforcement of law and regulation online is problematic,’ he says limply.

His attitude appears to be that since newspapers are the only parties within reach of his lash, they must take their flogging alone.

He attacks some titles, including the Daily Mail, for supposedly unjust criticism of his fellow judge Mr Justice Eady, for alleged bias towards plaintiffs in several big libel cases.

To my personal knowledge, Eady’s behaviour on the bench has dismayed even other senior judges.

But Leveson will have none of this. Newspapers, and newspapers alone, receive his censure.Leveson’s brand of crudely moralistic, statutorily backed arbitration would also enforce standards of political correctness, for instance intervening in ‘cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting, and in doing so reflect the spirit of equalities legislation’.

The proposal that the new regulatory body should admit complaints by ‘representative groups’, which consider themselves maltreated by the Press would mean newspapers could end up buried under a mountain of complaints from countless wailing bodies that think coverage of themselves unfair.

The public should recognise that the alacrity with which some politicians have welcomed Leveson’s proposals is influenced by a spirit of vengeance. They remain bitter about Press exposure of MPs’ fraudulent expenses claims.

As more than a few in Westminster will admit over a drink, this is payback time.

Leveson found that the special adviser of the then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had a long and improper dalliance with News International lobbyists about the firm's planned BSkyB takeover

Criticised: Lord Leveson said that John Yates was too friendly with News of the World reporters and should have stepped back from the hacking investigation

Newspapers put politicians on the grill over crooked expenses. Now, they think they see an opportunity to get their own back.

Yet such exposés of our rulers’ wrongdoings are the perfect example of the vital power the Press has to call governments to account, in a way that modern parliamentary oppositions often fail to do.

It will be a rotten day for democracy when newspapers lose that power.

It is inevitable, however, that new privacy rules will be exploited by every crook and charlatan in the land to shield their misdoings,  just as some already abuse our  Draconian libel laws.

Rancour: Comic Steve Coogan, pictured here arriving to give evidence to the inquiry about his personal experience with the Press

To create a new regulatory body by parliamentary statute would be to breach the freedoms and rights — even the right sometimes to be irresponsible — created and sustained for more than 300 years.

Above all, it is the lack of wisdom in the Leveson report that makes it such depressing reading.

There is a silliness and illogicality about its conclusions that are dismaying.

Some of Britain’s judges are men and women who daily display the highest intellectual rigour, but there is precious little of such a virtue in evidence here.

Leveson, for instance, treats with apparent respect the evidence of Tony Blair’s former Press secretary Alastair Campbell, who in the eyes of most of us is a moral bankrupt notorious for his role in preparing the false evidence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

No wonder Campbell gleefully responded yesterday by saying the report had made sense of the ‘mess the Press got themselves into’.

A vital part of mature and sensible government is to adopt proportionate responses to perceived ills. Britain has some of the best, as well as some of the worst, newspapers in the world. This seems to many of us not a bad recommendation.

Indeed, Leveson himself acknowledges that most of the British Press serves the nation well most of the time. Why, then, if this is so, impose upon us shackles such as may delight Hugh Grant and Max Mosley, but would represent a tragic blow to freedom, our heritage and the real public interest?


The Chancellor's medicine may be harsh. But Ed Balls would be economic poison

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George Osborne has many enemies. Something about the Chancellor of the Exchequer exasperates people even when he tries to be nice, as he did during moments of his Autumn Statement yesterday.

After telling the nation that he is cutting corporation tax, increasing investment allowances for small business and scrapping the scheduled 3p increase in fuel duty, he said: ‘We’re all in this together.’ Voters could be heard jeering as far off as Colwyn Bay.

It’s not his fault, but most of his life has been financed not from his earnings like the vast majority of the population, but instead from the family  fortune. George Osborne may occasionally catch a cold like the rest of us, but he is rash to pretend he knows from experience what it is like to struggle to pay a mortgage.

In the spotlight: Something about the Chancellor of the Exchequer exasperates people even when he tries to be nice, as he did during moments of his Autumn Statement yesterday

The Chancellor’s core message yesterday was brutally honest and inevitably bleak. He restated his conviction that Britain is on the right course back to economic health, but then had to acknowledge it is taking longer than he had hoped to get there.

He sped through a list of numbers — financial figures which are incomprehensible to most of us — before declaring that the national debt will only start falling in 2016 rather than 2015 as previously announced, and then only if a lot of other factors go to plan.

Most of his policy changes tinkered with small amounts of money which will provide marginal incentives for economic growth. They will have little or no effect on businesses or industrial behaviour, but are the only carrots the Chancellor can offer when he has so little money to spend.  

He sat down looking like an apostle who has announced that the Second Coming is indefinitely postponed, and waited for the Pharisees to start throwing stones.

But then Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls rose to his feet — and almost immediately got his tongue tied up in them. Instead of telling the Commons that public debt has risen, he roused Tory derision by saying the opposite. Of course he then corrected himself, declaring that this one test that the Government had set itself was ‘now in tatters’, but the damage was done.

Bruiser: Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls lost his way during his response to Osborne's speech

Even Balls the bruiser, Balls the understudy for Tony Soprano, Balls the man who would be king, recognised that he had lost the plot, and failed to find it again for the rest of  his speech.

At a stroke, attention shifted from the Chancellor of an unpopular government, struggling to retain its economic credibility, towards his Labour opposite number, the politician who will take over Britain’s purse strings if the Tories lose the 2015 election. And, for most of us, that is a very sobering possibility indeed. 

A few weeks ago I happened to meet Balls’s boss, Ed Miliband, in a TV studio. He said: ‘You don’t seem very impressed with what the Government is doing. Shouldn’t you be joining us?’

I responded that on the day he stands up and says: ‘I apologise humbly to the British people for the fact that the last Labour government, of which I was a member, wrecked the economy and squandered all our money,’ I might start to think about it.

Miliband lapsed into silence, and on that note we parted.

But what I said was neither original nor surprising, because it reflects what every sensible voter knows to be the case.

Many people are disappointed by the performance of the Coalition. They are sick of being told by Tory ministers that it is impossible to do sensible and important things — for instance, changing energy policy or making real cuts in welfare benefits — because the Lib Dems will not allow it. 

I have heard wise people who traditionally vote Conservative say they will not vote Tory again, or even that they will vote for Ukip at the next election. But have they thought about what they are saying, or what awful fate they would thus help to bring upon Britain? Every morning between now and 2015, we should remind ourselves that after the next election, only one of two people will be Prime Minister — David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Superman is not on offer.

Likewise, if George Osborne does not remain Chancellor, then Ed Balls (the very man who advised Gordon Brown through what has proved the most disastrous chancellorship in modern history) will take charge of the nation’s money.

A vote for Ukip, Labour or any minority party will contribute to the same outcome.

It is not just that Balls urged on Brown to the vast debt-fuelled binge which the Coalition inherited. If Labour regains power, he promises more of the same.

Challenge: Cameron and Osborne inherited from Blair, Brown and Balls a catastrophe, and they deserve sympathy in their struggle to rescue us from it

He has learned nothing from the past, proposing to borrow vastly more money that the country does not have to resurrect New Labour’s disastrous era of fantasy prosperity.

For years, Britain has been obsessed with spending money without much consideration as to whether what our manufacturers produce is what the rest of the world wants to buy. 

As a result, in the decade after Tony Blair took power and Brown and Balls made themselves at home in the Treasury, manufacturing output shrank by 19 per cent, while the property industry grew by 37 per cent, finance by 41 per cent and retailing by 27 per cent. Public spending increased by 42 per cent in real terms.

As we now know, the 27 per cent supposed growth in the economy produced by this spending binge was merely a bubble which exploded with a bang in 2008.

All that was left — and still remains — is an £876 billion increase in personal and government debt built up over the same period, which the unfortunate George Osborne is now struggling to reduce.

If George Osborne does not remain Chancellor, then Ed Balls will take charge of the nation's money

Of course, he has not been a perfect Chancellor. But he is an intelligent and courageous politician pursuing the only sane course for Britain — to attack our unsupportable sense of entitlement that has spawned an unaffordable welfare bill and to reduce out-of-control public spending.

Unless Osborne can succeed, the great fear is the financial markets will judge that Britain is on a course to the knacker’s yard, and refuse to lend us more money to fund our pretensions.

Osborne had little choice than to say: ‘The British economy is healing.’ 

This may have been less than frank, but he had to offer some ray of hope for the future, if only to prevent his own party from despairing. 

For his part, Ed Balls offers a far larger and more dangerous deceit: the scandalous pretence that we can sustain the lifestyle which he and Gordon Brown told the British people they could have, without earning the means to pay for it. 

If Balls ever had to practise his political principles as a businessman, his deceitful prospectus would be exposed as a Ponzi-style scheme that would earn him a stiff prison sentence for fraud.

More seriously, if ever again he is allowed to get his hands on the Treasury tiller, any chance of restoring this country to solvency will vanish up the chimney.

Every time we voters get frustrated by David Cameron or George Osborne, we must remind ourselves of the lurking Balls menace. 

The truth is that restoring Britain to any sort of financial health will require years of effort and wise policy-making across every area of government — in education, taxation, energy and welfare reform — together with sustained reductions in public spending such as have not yet taken place.

The Lib Dems remain hostile to many of these things. The Labour Party is committed  to fighting them all tooth  and nail.

We should never forget that Cameron and Osborne inherited from Blair, Brown and Balls a catastrophe, and they deserve sympathy in their struggle to rescue us from it.

We may never learn to love the Chancellor, but when we consider the alternative, it becomes tempting to kiss him under the mistletoe.

VIDEO: Balls is mocked by the House after getting in a muddle on the economy

Patrick Moore and why knowledge trumps the vacuous appeal of celebrity

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The passing of Patrick Moore, stargazer, great British eccentric and professional grump, leaves David Attenborough as the last survivor of the golden age of telly-teachers.

For half a century, the small screen, and especially the BBC portion of it, boasted a galaxy of presenters whose unembarrassed mission was to deliver sparkling lectures on things they knew a lot about: astronomy, wildlife, science, history, art, gardening.

Their programmes were unlike almost anything nowadays, on two counts. First, the BBC lavished on them immense budgets, cash on a scale no modern programme-maker could offer — save for a comedian or rock star.

Knowledge: The generation of presenters, exemplified by Patrick Moore, all had a quality that before first getting in front of a camera, they had acquired a store of experience and knowledge of their subject

The epic Great War series back in 1963 had a staff of more than 50 (including myself as a researcher) labouring for three years to produce 26 episodes of 40 minutes’ length, written by the half-dozen finest historians of the period in Britain.

Today, it is unusual for any TV company to fund more than six parts of anything save comedy or soaps. As a result, hapless presenters parody themselves trying to gabble the story of say, Christianity or the Theory Of Relativity, inside 50 minutes.

On the other side of the screen, vast audiences watched enraptured. They marvelled as the pioneer telly-don A.J.P. Taylor gave history lessons without notes or D-Day veteran General Sir Brian Horrocks likewise described great generals and military battles.

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Today, by contrast, television companies argue that the public lacks the attention span for anything that goes on a bit: audience figures fall off a cliff after four or five episodes, regardless of merit; people are no longer willing to be lectured at.

That is the TV bosses’ story, anyway. That is how they justify using actors and actresses to present many of today’s documentaries, heedless of whether these thespians know a Norse helmet from a chamber-pot.

Only if viewers get their dose from a celebrity they fancy — for example, Stephen Fry, Martin Clunes or Joanna Lumley — will they risk taking a swallow of cling-filmed knowledge.

Cherished: Sir David Attenborough is the last survivor of the golden age of telly-teachers

The contrast is extraordinary, with the generation of presenters exemplified by Patrick Moore.

Their most conspicuous quality was that before first getting in front of a camera, they had acquired a store of experience and knowledge of their subject.

Moore himself trained as a wartime RAF navigator and spent some years school-teaching before taking up writing and broadcasting.

He first presented BBC’s The Sky At Night at 10.30pm on April 26, 1957, and never looked back. His flamboyant delivery was supported by real scholarship: the authority with which he dismissed galaxial myth-makers and UFO-spotters delighted astronomers as well as viewers.

Moore had many peers in other fields.

Magnus Pyke, a populariser of science, was another on-screen arm-waver, a star of the Seventies programme Don’t Ask Me. Born in 1908, his reputation for authentic eccentricity was assured after a wartime spell advising the Ministry of Food.

Moore, pictured with his knighthood, trained as a wartime RAF navigator and spent time school-teaching before taking up writing and broadcasting

Percy Thrower, hailed as ‘Britain’s first celebrity gardener’ was born in 1913 and served a long apprenticeship at great houses, not least Windsor Castle — he married the royal head gardener’s daughter.

He made his TV debut on Gardening Club in 1956, then for years, starting in 1969, presented Gardener’s World.

Jacob Browonski was a Polish Jew who came to Britain as a small boy speaking just two words of English. A polymath, he mastered mathematics, biology, history, poetry, and first showed off his brilliance in the Fifties on The Brains Trust. In 1973, aged 65, he presented the 13-part BBC series The Ascent Of Man, showing how scientific endeavour had advanced humanity.

The there was Kenneth Clark, heir to a North Country textile fortune. He was another youthful prodigy, this time in the field of art.

He became director of the National Gallery at 30 in 1933, and simultaneously Surveyor of the King’s Pictures the next year. He climaxed his career as a cultural panjandrum by presenting the huge, dazzling BBC series Civilisation in 1969.

He said that he embarked on the programmes as a counterblast to iconoclasts who, in those days, denounced the Western world’s supposed decadence and decay.

What did all those men have in common? Unquestioned credentials to pontificate about their subjects. Even if they were not old when first they took to the airwaves, they had gained learning and experience, qualities then much valued by the BBC, and even sometimes by ITV.

This was also true lower down the food chain.

When Donald Baverstock, producer of the week-night current affairs programme Tonight, first went recruiting for reporters in 1957, he chose several old hands from the great magazine Picture Post: Fyfe Robertson, Alan Whicker and my own father, Macdonald Hastings.

Baverstock said he wanted people who had been around, seen the world, knew what they were talking about.

Driven by passion: Phil Drabble, pictured receiving his OBE, was a countryman through and through

My father, who presented many first-generation TV programmes about the British countryside, was driven by a passion and knowledge which came across on screen as strongly as his batty streak.

The same qualities were apparent in Phil Drabble, who hosted the popular sheepdog trial programme One Man And His Dog for 17 years, starting in 1976.

Phil was a countryman through and through, who liked to boast that he had never lived more than 20 miles from his Staffordshire birthplace.

It would be wrong to claim that today the cult of the expert in broadcasting is extinct.

The superb Neil Macgregor, director of the British Museum, has fronted some marvellous radio and television series. David Starkey is great on the Tudors and Mary Beard does her bit for the classic era. David Attenborough still delights us at 86.

But the principal thrust of factual TV has shifted, in favour of celebrity and packaging at the expense of authority and substance.

There are too many silly and visibly bargain-basement dramatic reconstructions, for instance with 20 men attempting to represent a mediaeval army.

Astrophysicist Brian Cox is a terrific presenter: so why is it thought necessary to couple him on the programme Stargazing Live with a comic, Dara O’Briain?

The answer, of course, is that nobody nowadays dares to make a TV series which allows even the brightest academic simply to talk about what he or she knows.

And the bleak matching reality is that if they did, not much of an audience would watch: viewers, influenced by our tragically inadequate education system, have dumbed themselves down even more than television companies.

Astrophysicist Brian Cox (left) has been coupled with Dara O'Briain on the programme Stargazing Live

Sadly, the overwhelming emphasis of factual TV is on visual effects, often absurdly trivial or irrelevant. As T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost for knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost for information?’

I can speak from experience about the fatuity of the youth cult among presenters, because aeons ago I was one myself.

As a reporter for the BBC current affairs programme 24 Hours in my mid-20s, back in the Seventies, I lacked the tiniest scintilla of wisdom to impart to viewers and blush to remember the nonsense I talked on air.

My father said with some complacency, as he himself got old: ‘The only virtue of youth is that what is young is good to eat.’

Here is a thought for the BBC’s new director-general, Tony Hall: bring on a new generation of old sages. They are repositories of wisdom, and there is precious little of it about.


MAX HASTINGS: We'll need great courage to tackle this deadly new face of terror

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An unknown number of British and other foreign gas workers have been killed in Algeria for no better reason than that they were Westerners who became targets for Muslim fanatics, and apparently ‘collateral damage’ in a rescue attempt.

Al Qaeda, which has been in eclipse since the death of Osama Bin Laden almost two years ago, has won itself another bloody headline. And Algeria takes its place in a jigsaw of areas of extremist violence that extends across the globe.

Statistically, a Western traveller or expatriate worker is far more likely to die in a motorway smash in the snow than to be murdered by Al Qaeda. But after every new attack, foreigners will continue to feel unsafe – whether they are on the north Kenya coast, in Egyptian resorts, or, now also, across large tracts of North Africa.

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Threat: Terrorists have become more eager to attack Westerners in faraway places. This picture shows militants in Mali

As a result, Western governments are left to argue afresh about how best to tackle the multi-headed terrorist threat, often in countries such as Algeria where they have no clout. 

It is argued that the West has less global influence than at any time since the 1930s. No great power can throw its weight around as once it did.

For their part, terrorists have become more eager to attack Westerners in faraway places because we have tightened security and made it relatively hard for them to strike at our homelands.

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But it is depressing how impotent Western governments are at protecting their citizens abroad.

In Britain, budget cuts have eaten deep into the overseas missions of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: thus we have only a minimal presence in Algeria. Western intelligence services know little about what is going on there, or indeed in neighbouring Mali, now the scene of a serious war.

The intelligence services rightly argue that with limited resources and a chronic shortage of Arabic speakers, we cannot face all ways at once. Thus Western nations face tough dilemmas in deciding how to address murderous Islam abroad.

Terror: British workers were among more than 100 foreigners held hostage at the BP-operated Amenas natural gas field field in Algeria. It means Al Qaeda has won itself another bloody headline

President George Bush gave us a masterclass in how not to do it, with his response to the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. He launched the so-called ‘war on terror’ against everybody associated with Al Qaeda.

The first strikes took place in Afghanistan within months, and used air power and special forces to help rebels oust the Taliban government and pursue Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Although initially limited and reasonable objectives, matters soon went horribly wrong.

America and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 because its weapons of mass destruction ‘posed a threat’ to the West, but the truth was that Bush was simply determined to oust Saddam Hussein.

Back in Afghanistan, allied forces set about trying to create a stable democracy. But we all know what followed: bloodshed on a scale that cannot be justified by anything the West has achieved.

Millions of people who once had no strong feelings about America and Britain are now our enemies.We have spent £15billion in Afghanistan since 2000, allegedly to keep terrorism off the streets of London. But in truth, we have merely shown how not to fight Al Qaeda.

Worrying: Western intelligence services know little about what is going on in Algeria or Mali. Islamists rebels in Mali seen here patrolling the streets of Gao last year

The CIA has fallen in love with its Predator drones which can fly 400 miles, loiter in the sky for 14 hours, unleash Hellfire missiles with pinpoint accuracy, then potter home again, while being directed by a pilot working in the safety of a hangar in California.

Despite their success, many are worried that drone killing squads (operating outside the law and beyond political scrutiny and often inflicting severe civilian casualties), have contributed greatly to fuelling Muslim extremism and hatred for the West. Indeed, the drones probably create more enemies than they destroy.  

As for the public in the West, we are supposed to be reassured that our armed forces are pursuing the bad guys of Al Qaeda, who threaten our societies.

But what if terrorists got hold of their own drones? It is only a matter of time before terrorists attack Western targets with remote-controlled planes.

Although government installations are shielded by jamming devices, it would be far easier to crash a drone than a hijacked airliner on to the White House or Downing Street.

Part of the problem in addressing Al Qaeda is that it is no single entity, but a muddle of groups in many countries, many of them semi-criminal, some bent upon enriching themselves as well as serving Allah.

Attack: Islamist militants this week seized hundreds of hostages deep in the Sahara. Members of Algeria's army are pictured close to the scene

The alleged architect of the Algerian attack is Mokhtar Belmokhar, who calls himself leader of the Signed-in-Blood battalion. His objective appears to be retaliation for Western intervention in Mali, where Al Qaeda followers had been well on the way to securing control of the country as a safe haven, until the French took the dangerous step of dispatching troops to aid the tottering local government.

The chaos in Mali shows why the West is wise to be cautious about military involvements in the Muslim world.

Many of the fighters there, and most of their weapons, drifted in from Libya after the Western-aided rebels deposed and killed Muammar Gaddafi. Here is yet an example of its unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, Downing Street sees a ‘moral imperative’ in assisting the rebels to remove the murderous President Assad of Syria.

But intelligence and military experts have been warning our government, and President Barack Obama, that many of the rebels are hard-core Islamists.

If they manage to gain power, it is unlikely they will prove comfortable bedfellows for us.

Remote: After every new attack abroad, western foreigners will continue to feel unsafe. The In Salah gas project in the Sahara desert, Algeria, is pictured

All the experience of the past decade shows that we should spend money on gathering proper intelligence about our Muslim enemies abroad, and giving support and advice to other nations’ security forces in fighting them.

But the best way to win over moderate Muslim opinion is by displaying extreme caution about launching military interventions.

Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has launched several major attacks that have cost many lives. The 2002 Bali bombing killed 202 people; 191 died in the 2004 Madrid bombings; the 7/7 attacks in London killed 52 people as well as the four bombers.

But in recent years, the terrorist movement has failed to achieve any murderous spectacular. Even so, we should always be alert to the fact that no society can ever be immune from the assaults of enemies, many of whom simply envy and resent our success.

Our grandparents had to endure vastly worse things at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War. Al Qaeda is puny by comparison. Britain remains a relatively safe, relatively privileged land.But intractable and murderous fanatics such as the Algerian hostage-takers will continue to launch spasmodic assaults on Westerners wherever they can.

We must show a small portion of the courage our forefathers displayed, and bear the pain these murderous anarchists – which is what Al Qaeda’s terrorists really are – inflict upon the innocent.