Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stop The Press - It's Mayor's Questions

Yesterday saw the last Mayor's Question Time before the recess. This is traditionally a fairly rowdy affair as members let their hair down in anticipation of a long break and Wednesday morning was no exception.

A prepared list of questions largely went by the board in favour of a feeding frenzy around the News International scandal and the mayor's involvement.

News of The Screws

Ken Livingstone was in the public gallery for the initial exchanges. He was wearing his dark suit which only ever sees the daylight when he wants to be seen as serious, so he was clearly expecting to face some questions himself. Actually he had just come from the launch of Labour's London Assembly candidates, a diverse group that includes Tracey Ullman's daughter - might come in useful to have someone who knows the words of 'Break Away'....

Len Duvall led the Labour group's charges against Boris. These centred around the fact that the mayor himself had experienced News of The World phone hacking but had declined to be a witness in the prosecution of those responsible back in 2006. More seriously he was chairing the police authority in 2009 when AC John Yates had decided - after a review lasting eight hours - not to reopen the case, and he had subsequently made some dismissive comments at Question Time.

On the first charge I have some sympathy with Boris. At the time he was an MP and had no responsibility for the police, and understandably he had no wish to see his personal life dragged through the courts with all the consequent publicity. The police had told him that his cooperation was not necessary and indeed they did secure convictions against Mulcaire and Goodman without his help. Both men received significant prison sentences.

On the second charge, Yates had assured Boris that there was no public interest in pursuing further prosecutions given the other priorities that Scotland Yard faced. To have issued conflicting orders might have looked like a personal vendetta, given that the mayor had himself been a victim.

Ken came in for some stick as well, and he sat grim faced in the third row whilst Conservative members revealed his list of meetings and social contacts with Murdoch, Brooks and co. They also highlighted the many payments he received from News International for writing their newspaper columns.

It's a microcosm of the debate which was going on up the river at Westminster. For the last two decades politicians, police and the press have enjoyed a cosy relationship, largely dictated by the enormous power wielded by the editors and proprietors. One day the music was going to stop, leaving everyone looking tainted.

Not that I blame the politicians for currying favour. Kinnock (1992), Major (1997), Hague (2001), Duncan Smith (2003) and Brown (2008) were all heavily damaged by hostile news reporting and there was a view that you could not win an election in the UK without Murdoch's support. I think that view was exaggerated, it was less 'The Sun What Won It' and more 'The Sun What Predicted It and Joined the Winning Side', but even so it was never an advantage to have them working against you.

For police chiefs and people running other public organisations a positive press was essential to maintaining public confidence. They don't have PR departments for the fun of it.

And for those of us further down the political chain, backbench MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors, well we just kept our heads down and hoped they wouldn't notice us. To complain publicly about the press was akin to standing up to complain about snipers in a war zone. Only the foolhardy would do it once, only the lucky would do it twice.

And at the very end of the meeting, I posed an uncomfortable question that can't have been only on my mind. Had members of the Assembly been hacked? With a list of 4,000 victims less than 200 of whom have been informed, I believe this is a real possibility. And have members of the Metropolitan Police Authority been hacked?

There's a lot of blame being passed around at the moment. I'm just pleased that the music has stopped and there is the prospect of a new start. The End of The World leaves a gaping hole which may widen if other titles follow it, and we need to be very vigilant about how that gap is filled. The cross party motion in Parliament yesterday was a good start and it would be nice to see the same spirit prevail at City Hall.

Mini Cabs

In the shadow of the Murdoch furore, members did manage to raise some other important matters. I have received complaints about unlicensed mini cabs recently so I asked Boris about his plans to drive these cowboys off our streets.

The enforcement unit had been doubled in size to 68 police officers and a recent operation in Marylebone had resulted in 39 arrests. In the year up to May 2011 the number of reported sex attacks in mini cabs had fallen by 20%. Nevertheless there was still a lot to do and the fact that 79% of those arrested already had criminal records highlights a problem with repeat offending.

For passengers seeking a licensed vehicle there is the Cabwise service - text CABWISE to 60835 - which provides the details of three reputable carriers near to the desired location.

I still get plenty of emails about taxi touts both in central London and on my own patch so TfL and the Met Police cannot afford to rest on their laurels.


Mrs Angry said...

I am dying to know, Mr Evans, what it is that you have done that the NOTW might have been so desperate to find out about they would hack your phone? Of course I did try and interest them in the story about you and the ladies shoe shop in Romford, but they said that even they had to draw the line somewhere.

And by the way, now that I have been canonised by Eric Pickles, I expect a little more respect from you, and possibly a civic reception at City Hall to mark the contribution of Barnet bloggers to the cause of armchair auditing. Or a drinks party, organised by MR Rams?

Roger Evans said...

With your new status as a Guardian columnista I'm flattered that you still find time to drop by, Mrs A...

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, it is awfully good of me, but I see it as part of my contribution to the Big Society; a form of good deeds and voluntary missionary work amongst the less fortunate.

Another way in which I feel I can contribute is perhaps to take some of your Tory colleagues on the GLA under my wing, and teach them some good manners, and possibly a few lessons in anger management. Having watched a short clip of the infamous recent meeting in which He Who Must Not Be Named disgraced himself yet again with a tantrum, I feel this matter is rather pressing. And I note that the poor woman chairing the meeting kept calling 'Mr Evans', 'Mr Evans'... was this a cry for help, or were you being naughty as well? I do hope not.

Roger Evans said...

Actually I was being called to speak by the Chair - I decided to wait until the fuss had calmed down before I began. You can see my contribution to the debate if you watch the next few minutes....