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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Dismay at Express and Mirror as High Court privacy case unfolds

Journalists at the Daily Express and The Mirror are watching events at the High Court with a mix of disquiet and disbelief.


Two of their own – Express Editor Gary Jones and former Mirror Editor Piers Morgan – were implicated last week in alleged phone hacking and the illegal “blagging” of private bank details.


The claims emerged on the second day of the Prince Harry phone hacking trial. The Duke of Sussex, one of the alleged victims, is due to give evidence in court next month.


The court heard that financial records of Prince Michael of Kent, cousin of the late Queen Elizabeth, were obtained from Coutts bank by private investigators posing as the prince’s accountant.


A story then appeared in the Daily Mirror saying that the prince was heavily in debt and had an unauthorised £220,000 overdraft at the bank.


The man who commissioned the investigators to target Prince Michael of Kent was Gary Jones, said David Sherborne, who is representing claimants in the civil trial.


“Piers Morgan was personally aware of what Gary Jones was doing,” Sherborne added.


He told the court that the incident pointed to a culture of widespread illegality and cover-ups at the highest levels of the company.


Andrew Green, KC, for Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), said the publisher unreservedly apologised for using a private investigator to gain information about Harry’s behaviour at a nightclub.


But he denied other articles about him involved unlawful activity. In fact, one of the articles came from “an on-the-record interview given by [Harry].”


MGN said: “We will vigorously defend against allegations of wrongdoing where our journalists acted lawfully.”


Morgan defended himself, saying: “I am not going to take lectures on privacy invasion from Prince Harry, somebody who has spent the last three years ruthlessly and cynically invading the Royal Family’s privacy for vast commercial gain and told a pack of lies about them.”


The case, which continues, is adding to an already sombre mood at The Mirror.


“They’re sacking people left, right and centre,” one journalist told me. “It’s a killing field. Highly experienced back and middle benchers are going, good reporters, too.”


As for Jones, he seems to be withstanding the pressure of the allegations levelled against him.


“He’s pretty robust,” said another source, an ally of Jones. “I think he just brushes it off. But some journalists here think this could be the end for him now that he has been directly linked to hacking.”


He added that morale among the staff is low. “Bosses take the view that if hacking happened, it was under a previous regime – but they are briefing staff on how to deal with negative comments.


“The staff are worried that if the claims are proved and payouts have to be made, it will lead to more cuts to pay for it, or even the collapse of the company.”

*****

The swagger has gone. Maybe it’s the illness – cancer, they say, and perhaps Parkinson’s, too – but Vladimir Putin no longer has the look of an emperor.


Remember those images from five years ago as he entered the Kremlin to be sworn in for another term as Russian President?


He strode briskly and confidently, arms swinging, down a red-carpeted corridor, through gilded doors three times as tall as he is and flanked by goose-stepping guards, to bask in the applause of the faithful lining his route.


Now he must feel as if the red brick walls of the Moscow fortress are closing in on him.


The pint-sized tsar (Putin is 5ft 7in) is facing defeat in Ukraine and simmering discontent among his inner circle. The next month could decide his fate.


Ukraine is planning a counterattack against Russian forces occupying the east of the country. It has delayed the onslaught, according to President Zelensky in an interview last week, because they are waiting for new weapons to be supplied by the West.


“With [what we already have] we can go forward and, I think, be successful,” Zelensky said. “But we’d lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable.”


On Thursday, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced in the Commons that Britain was sending long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine to bolster the offensive. This was followed on Sunday by a pledge of €3 billion worth military aid from Germany.


The Russians are dug in along 900 miles of the frontline in the east of Ukraine and conventional military wisdom says that attacking forces generally take three times as many casualties as defenders.


But a bloody stalemate around Bakhmut is finally being broken as Ukrainian forces begin to retake ground lost to the Russian forces.


Meanwhile, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the sinister head of a murderous mercenary outfit called the Wagner Group, took a swipe at Putin and his generals in an outburst that suggests he either has designs on the presidency – or balls of steel.


Prigozhin – known as Putin’s Chef because of his Kremlin catering contracts – did not mention Putin’s name but said “a happy grandfather” believed the invasion would end with victory for Moscow. Putin’s critics call him the “grandfather in the bunker”.


“If he turns out to be right, God bless everyone,” said Prigozhin. “But what should the country do… if it turns out that this grandfather is a complete arsehole?”


Prigozhin has lashed out previously at defence minister Sergei Shoigu and top general Valery Gerasimov, calling them “scumbags” who would burn in hell for withholding ammunition from Russian troops in Bakhmut, where they are still fighting for complete control.


Putin has been tolerant in the past of Prigozhin’s fierce criticism of those prosecuting the war because it allows him to deflect blame for the fiasco to his generals.


But the latest tongue-lashing, which came soon after the Victory Day parade in Moscow, seems an extraordinarily personal attack on Russia’s president.


Putin used the parade to reinforce his own narrative about the war, accusing the West of creating a new cult of Nazism and of forgetting who it was that defeated Hitler.


Kyiv mocked the scaled-back parade, which featured only 8,000 troops, no flypast and a single tank – “the loneliest little tank in the world,” the Ukrainians called it.


Russia has taken more than 100,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead, just since December. Many of these were drawn from poor rural communities, especially in the east of Russia; or from reserve units; or from among convicts promised pardons if they survived six months at the front.


However, Putin’s calamitous war is using up the cannon fodder quickly. Soon, he may be forced to start calling up the sons of the moneyed middle classes. And that is when his hold on power will become precarious.


All the wealth of this gangster president – some estimates put his personal fortune at £160 billion – will not save him then.


Men like Putin usually end up hanging from a lamppost. In his case, Polonium tea served by an employee of Prigozhin seems a more likely fate.

*****

News UK is closing its print plant at Knowsley, on Merseyside. The Sun and The Times are printed there, as well as the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the FT.


Production of the papers will be switched to the Eurocentral industrial estate, near Glasgow, and a site at Broxbourne, near Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire.


Newsprinters Ltd, the News UK printing and distribution arm, still has to go through the staff consultation process but bosses left no doubt that the closure was going ahead.


Managing Director Darren Barker said. “News UK remains committed to print and will continue to invest in both the quality journalism our readers want and our print production and distribution capability.”


Why? The end game is close. National newspaper circulations are pitifully small now compared with their heyday – the Mirror sells fewer than 275,000 and the Express is down to 172,000. Simple arithmetic dictates that newspapers should go online.


Savings would be huge. But so would the risk that readers might abandon them altogether. And advertising directors have consistently struggled to sell online ads.


Investment in newspaper websites has been slow. Managements have been reluctant to switch from print to digital. Even former Express owner Richard Desmond readily admitted he could not see how to make a profit on the internet.


So, arguably, only three newspaper organisations are anywhere near ready for the change: The Guardian, which has a fine website but would need to charge for it; the Daily Mail, which has a big but trashy site; and The Times, the only one to bring the production values of print journalism into their digital operation.


You realise what that means? At 92, Rupert Murdoch, the best businessman and probably the best newspaperman of his generation, could yet be the last man standing.

*****

Back in his New Labour days, probably the only man who could rival Alastair Campbell’s mastery of spin was the great bowler Shane Warne.


One key difference: Warne delivered the ball of the century (to Mike Gatting in the 1993 Ashes series). Campbell, with his effect on the dodgy dossier, delivered the balls-up of the next century: the Iraq war of 2003.


Now Campbell has published a new book: But What Can I Do? Why Politics Has Gone So Wrong and How You Can Help Fix It (Penguin £22).


That’s rich as Christmas cake coming from a man I regard as the most pernicious influence on British politics in modern times.


Sorry, Boris! But you were a close second. Honest*.


*Honest: Fair and upright in speech and act, not lying, cheating or stealing – OED.


16 May 2023