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Liz Gerard’s Notebook

Assisted dying debate, misunderstanding how our democracy works, targeting Sadiq Khan, Met chief under fire, Louis turns 6, online howlers, demise of Times’s editorial conferences and front page of the fortnight…

By Liz Gerard

Liz Gerard’s Notebook

Assisted dying: it’s complicated

"There is nothing half-hearted about this “crusade”."

The Daily Express has been full of itself over the past couple of weeks, having promoted a petition calling for a change in the law to allow assisted dying and succeeded in securing a parliamentary debate on the subject – which took place on Monday.

That this is an issue the paper should take up is unsurprising, given its ageing readership. And it has been given added impetus by Esther Rantzen’s interviews at the end of last year, in which she spoke about her stage four cancer and her thoughts about “buzzing off” to Dignitas in Switzerland rather than linger on and die in agony.

Since then, the paper has splashed on Dame Esther’s campaign ten times, with two more on her personal situation – her happy Christmas and the comfort she took from messages of support – and another on her “plea” for a support lifeline for the lonely. There have also been front-page pictures and puffs along the way to amplify the message.

There is nothing half-hearted about this “crusade”, so on the face of it, the paper should be congratulated. It has latched on to a matter of genuine public interest and achieved its initial objective – that debate on Monday. So why do I have such a sense of disquiet over the whole thing?

Well, for a start, neither the paper nor the Rantzen / Wilcox family really wants a debate. They want a change in the law. The extensive coverage of the debate was unbelievably one-sided, with those with concerns about where such legislation might lead dismissed as “cowards” and accused of ignoring the evidence and peddling unreliable statistics.

No newspaper campaigning for something it firmly believes is right – so obviously right that it is a matter of “common sense” – is ever going to give equal weight to counter-arguments. The Express allowed Ann Widdecombe a couple of sentences of comeback to the “cowards” line and readers have aired doubts in the letters page. What more did I expect?

A bit more honesty perhaps? A recognition that this isn’t a simple issue, that there are legitimate concerns about people being pressured – or feeling pressured – into agreeing to end their lives before they are ready to go. The arguments that it is inhumane to make people soldier on when they have no quality of life, that “you wouldn’t treat a dog like that” are well-rehearsed. But there are pet owners who take a dog to the vet because they, rather than the animal, cannot deal with the situation. We are deluding ourselves if we think that no one will behave like that towards elderly incontinent relatives whose care costs upwards of £1,500 a week. Legislation would have to be so carefully drafted, with many checks and protections put in place. The intentions might be honourable and compassionate, but the risks of bad law are enormous.

"The extensive coverage of the debate was unbelievably one-sided."

The whole tenor of the Express’s coverage has been that there is overwhelming public support for a change in the law. But is there? That petition collected 200,000 signatures, but it took four months to do so. That isn’t exactly speedy or huge. Especially when set against others, such as the call for Article 50 to be reversed, which hit six million in very short order. Express online polls show a huge majority in favour of the change – almost four to one in favour. But how many of those self-selecting respondents were there?

And if there is such a groundswell for action, why does the Express keep hammering the same three celebrity proponents: Rantzen, Jonathan Dimbleby and Susan Hampshire? If the Mail were running this campaign, it would be lining up different people with a different take every week.

Then there was the way the debate itself was projected. In accordance with the government petition rules, passing the 200,000 barrier meant there had to be a debate. But not in the Commons, as a splash last month claimed. Not in the Lords. Not one that ended in a vote that actually decided anything. It was a three-hour conversation in Westminster Hall, after which both main parties said they would “take note” of the feelings expressed in it.

Finally, I am disquieted by the implication that because a TV personality wants a change in the law, it has to happen. Esther must be granted her dying wish. End of. Those splash headlines are all about her and what she wants. And she must not be denied.

Now I’m not saying that she is not campaigning for others – she patently is, since there’s no chance of assisted dying being legalised in her lifetime. But the Express is making it all about her and her desires. Yes, there are stories of people who have watched loved ones die in pain and of the criminalisation of those who have acted to end such suffering. But those front pages are all Esther, Esther, Esther. And far from converting me to the cause, it is turning me right off.

That’s just a personal reaction – in much the same way that I don’t feel Maureen Lipman being wheeled out every five minutes is a great way to advance the case of British Jews who may have genuine reasons to feel afraid. The fact that these dames have opinions and use their celebrity to voice them – which they have every right to do – doesn’t make those opinions any more or less valid than those of less famous people who may have similar or greater expertise and experience. Yet the way they are rammed down our throats suggests that we are “supposed” to take note and act accordingly. Esther says this, Maureen thinks that – that’s an end to the matter, it must be so.

I’m being ungenerous. I’m sorry. I do understand the desperation of people suffering pain and indignity with no hope of respite. I do understand the desire of those around them to have the means to end such suffering. But, as other writers in other papers have pointed out at rather greater length than the couple of pars the Express allows, it’s not that simple.

Express misunderstands how our democracy works, again

Wilful misunderstanding of the way things work?

Sticking with the Express, I do wonder whether there is a wilful misunderstanding of the way things work, a deliberate attempt to mislead, or just ignorance. While Parliament was playing ping pong with the Rwanda bill, the Express was again stamping its feet and telling the Lords they must do what the Government wanted. When they declined to nod the legislation through, but instead put forward a series of amendments – including exempting Afghans who had actually helped us during the war and a modest requirement not to break international law – it shouted, “Lords defy will of the people over Rwanda bill…again!” With the “again” in red.

Who says the bill was the will of the people? The Prime Minister may have done. But that legislation was in no manifesto. The policy was dreamt up after Boris Johnson had won his landslide. The Express should know, but doesn’t seem to accept, that an election victory is an instruction from voters to politicians to do what they promised. It is not a blank cheque for them to do as they wish on any issue they choose to tackle.

What’s more, extensive polling shows that the bill was not even the “will of the people” as it proceeded through parliament. Latest surveys showed that while a greater proportion of people thought it should go through intact than thought either that it should be junked or that it should be modified, they were not in a majority. More thought that it should be changed or abandoned, with up to 75% supporting some of the Lords amendments. What’s more, the overwhelming majority – including 60% of Conservative voters – thought it poor value and would not work.

An election-morning boost for the PM?

All of that is now academic. The legislation went through, received the royal assent last Thursday, and by Monday the Guardian was reporting that the Home Office was going to start detaining asylum-seekers marked for the first flights to Kigali. It was on the money. Today the Mail splashes on “the day Rwanda became a reality” (apparently accepting that the chap who voluntarily got on a plane this week was a “bonus”), with the news that “Operation Vector”, which will involve 800 immigration enforcement officers, did indeed start on Monday. Migrants – the Mail doesn’t say how many – were arrested at their “shabby properties” by officers equipped with battering rams (which were not needed). The sight of these people in handcuffs, the strap suggests, will be a dramatic election morning boost for the prime minister.

But not so fast. There may have been arrests. But that doesn’t mean those held are likely to be flying anywhere soon. The Mail concedes it could be up to three months before they take off – and here’s the i splashing on civil servants planning to sue the government for being asked to break international law. A line that, to its credit, the Mail reports in its lead without the disdain it customarily shows for “the blob”.

Back on the leader page, the Mail commends Rishi for sticking to his guns and even suggests that while today is likely to bring carnage for the Tories, all might not be lost come the general election. Starmer is “flapping in the wind” while Sunak is “getting into his stride”. Quite the endorsement from the paper that did its utmost to keep this back-stabbing Brutus out of No 10. But the message here isn’t really one of congratulation. It’s one of warning – to the Tories not to try to oust their leader.

Returning to the Express, a further “misunderstanding” of the way our democracy functions came four days later with a splash headlined “Stop meddling! PM warns Labour it must pass Rwanda bill”. Where to start with that? The official opposition opposing? The Lords doing their job? Since when was that meddling?

Well forever, obviously, since Rishi said so. Our tally of Conservative threats and promises has grown this past couple of weeks, with Hunt “exclusively” telling the Express at a public event that tax cuts are a priority – two weeks after he had promised to cut taxes and “bet” on growth. And of course, the PM had told “sick note Britain” to get a grip and get a job. Just don’t get me started on that one (not least because it’s a bit rich coming from a business that is sacking staff). Suffice to say that the i’s approach to this over the past couple of days has struck me as a better example of rigorous journalism.

"A better example of rigorous journalism."

But what’s this here? Last Sunday’s Express had “Keir” promising to keep the pension triple lock. On a day that it had a Rishi stick-to-the-plan ‘exclusive’. Since when was such a property not the splash? Since when were the right-wingers on first-name terms with the Labour leader (other than when they want to be sarcastic)? Well, they are quite a bit now. The Mail and Sun have also been chummy with “Keir”. Captain Crasheroonie Snoozefest, that “ocean-going dud” with whom any potential Tory leader would “wipe the floor”, seems to have disappeared and is now merely flapping in the wind. Maybe it’s the headline count. Or maybe not.

Now on first-name terms.

All Khan’s fault?

Today’s leader notwithstanding, the Mail seems to be coming to terms, however reluctantly, with the idea that Starmer will be prime minister by the end of the year and that it might have to accommodate him (it has already splashed delightedly on his defence pledges). So where to go next? Well, we’ve seen how it has gone after Angela Rayner – the Sunday paper made it four splashes in a row last month – with the key objective preventing her pushing through legislation on workers’ rights. (Lo and behold, the Guardian and FT report this morning that Labour is to dilute its policy on zero-hours contracts, sick pay and the right to strike. Of course it is. Isn’t that par for the course for Keir?)

"Par for the course for Keir?"

Its other target is Sadiq Khan. With the local elections today expected to produce a drubbing that will weaken still further the ground under Sunak’s feet, the Mail is looking not at councillors or police commissioners, but at mayors. Much has been made of how Ben Houchen and Andy Street are in peril – but that smacks a bit of expectation management. Polling suggests that they should hang on, but – as many anonymous Tories are telling the lobby hacks – if they fall, it will be really serious for Rishi.

"Running with blood."

Both the party and the Mail are thus trying to unseat the Labour mayor of London. The Tories put out a ridiculous video portraying the capital as some kind of American ghetto and last Saturday the Mail took up the theme with an equally scary spread (plus extra page) on how London’s streets were “running with blood” under virtue-signalling Khan. On the same day, Boris Johnson weighed in with his column, headlined, “Come on London! High time to kick out high-crime, high-tax, do-nothing Mayor Khan.

More was promised for Sunday, but the property developer Nick Candy saying the world’s best city couldn’t have another four years of the world’s worst mayor had to be content with page 16 because the paper had instead decided to go after the Met (more of that later). Come Monday, it was time for an interview with the Tory candidate, Susan Hall, whose main complaint about the incumbent seemed to be that he was “just so rude… he talks over you”.

That, however, was mild when compared with the Evening Standard of that day. It produced a front page and spread that was off-the-scale propaganda. It is worth reminding readers that the Standard is owned by Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a Russian spy who was ennobled by Boris Johnson, who had written two days earlier that London should kick out Mayor Khan.

"Off-the-scale propaganda."

Met chief under fire

It looked like a devastating splash.

Lawless London has been quite the theme of late, specifically knife crime – brought home with the sword horror in Hainault this week – and continuing angst about pro-Palestinian marches and their impact on the Jewish community. A couple of weeks ago, the Telegraph had what looked like a devastating splash on a policeman challenging a man, apparently going about his daily business, for being “openly Jewish”. Wow! The whole thing whipped up into a storm, with Suella Braverman offering her twopenn’th to the Today programme. Jewish leaders said that Mark Rowley should resign as Met commissioner– and the Mail duly reported the demand as its main story, while the Telegraph splashed that day on, “PM refuses to back under-fire Met chief”.

Let’s just pause on that for a moment. In what walk of life has any head of any organisation quit because someone several layers below them in the hierarchy (think chief exec of Tesco and a checkout woman – or even newspaper editor and reporter) has made a mistake or spoken out of turn? On one occasion. In a difficult situation. The very idea was preposterous.

But certain sectors of the media have decided that Braverman was right when she categorised pro-Palestinian demonstrators as “hate marchers” and they are unwilling to countenance that there may not only be some peaceful Jews joining the protesters (please do listen to what this woman has to say), but also some provocative Jews looking for confrontation. And so in the days that followed, we learnt a little more about the “openly Jewish” Gideon Falter and what actually happened when he had that encounter with that officer.

... but it wasn't the police ...

It is not in the Mail’s nature to retreat, however. So last weekend, the Sunday paper led on a photograph of a Holocaust monument in Hyde Park that had been covered with a tarpaulin by the “cowed” Met to protect it from the “anti-Semitic mob”. This was, it continued inside, a shameful insult to the six million.

Except it hadn’t. The Met came back with a tweet to say that the park authorities, not the police, had decided to cover the memorial as a precaution – as it had done on previous occasions. The headline, it said, was inaccurate and would only fuel community concerns.

It will be interesting to see if the paper feels the need to publish a correction this week. Don’t hold your breath.

Boy turns six, clear the front page

Meanwhile, the Sun appears to be diverting its gaze from the messy political arena (it, too, is being more friendly towards “Keir”, presumably while it waits for the big cheese finally to come down on the side of the winner) and is instead going full-tilt bread and circuses. In the past two weeks, we’ve had four royal splashes, five footballer leads (two of them, inevitably, about Kyle Walker) and two reality TV stories, plus Huw Edwards leaving the BBC. Today, Liverpool “ace” Trent Alexander Arnold’s love life was centre stage - to ingratiate or irritate the boycotters? - with the Hainault victim Daniel Anjorin, who was the main image for almost everyone else, pushed into a corner as “sword lad”. Last week, the front was all but cleared both for Louis having a birthday and for the King making his comeback.

A child’s sixth birthday, virtually an entire national newspaper front page? I can hardly wait for tomorrow’s offering. Charlotte is nine today and the Waleses have just issued Kate’s latest photograph of her – perfect timing to deflect from Sunak’s expected nightmare at the polls.

"Full-tilt bread and circuses."

The Sun was far from alone in going gangbusters for the King returning to public duties. Most did. The Mail had no other element on its front – not even a little above-the-titlepiece teaser or offer. Compare that with the treatment of the Bataclan massacre, when a Lego promotion still occupied the top half of the page.

When to puff, when not to?

Naturally, people are happy and relieved that the sovereign appears to be in good enough health to come out in public – and, as a 75-year-old cancer patient, he can certainly be held up as a shining example to “workshy Britain” – but it did trouble me that he should so dominate last Saturday’s papers, so that even “serious” papers like the Times and Telegraph had no other news element, beyond a few nibs (though the puffs survived).


National Trust – all is forgiven

Talking of puffs, it was interesting to see the Reach papers – Express and Mirror – both making a big fuss of a National Trust family membership promotion. Have they forgotten that the Trust is not only “woke” and a slave to slave apologism, but that it is also “secretly” virtue-signalling its vegan scones (that one came from Mail online). The Mirror probably wouldn’t mind, but the Express seems to have switched sides in at least one culture war.

Not woke anymore.

Still front page news

The Mirror, with a new editor formally installed, is meanwhile sticking with its tried and tested formula: old crimes. In the past two weeks, we’ve had Jill Dando (twice), the Shannon Matthews non-kidnap and the Stephen Lawrence murder. Yes, they’ve all seen developments, but I do think the paper is too rooted in historical crimes that most readers will have long forgotten or lost interest in.

"Too rooted in historical crimes?"

Online subs needed

I had a moan last time about online offerings, both local and national. The central problem is that people are being asked to do too much. Or at least I hope it is, and that it isn’t basic idleness and incompetence. Mail Online is now one of the biggest – if not the biggest – digital news sites in the world. Whatever you think of the news values, the organisation is known for its slickness. But what about this? Doesn’t anyone read what they pump out?

"Doesn’t anyone read what they pump out?"

That said, there are gems to be found on the site. The demise this week of Reader’s Digest caught the imagination of Guardian and Telegraph writers, but made little impact in print elsewhere. The Mail gave it just two or three paragraphs. But there was a delightful little roam down memory lane online, with some lovely old covers to illustrate it. So, I guess that when you’re looking at apostrophised plurals and Trevor Francis dying aged six, it’s good to remember that laughter is the best medicine.

"A delightful little roam down memory lane."

Times editorial conferences: RIP

"Teamwork and discussion is invaluable."

It wasn’t only Reader’s Digest that was given the last rites this week. Times editor Tony Gallagher told a media forum that the paper no longer holds editorial conferences to discuss what’s going in the paper. Having been out of newsrooms for so long, I won’t speculate on how that might work. For some, conference was a waste of time that could be better used doing rather than talking. Sports editors, in particular, would feel aggrieved at listening to half an hour’s wittering about the news schedule before being indulged with two minutes on Manchester City. More than one would bring a layout pad to the table and get on with scheming pages. But it also means no input from people in other departments who might have a “reader’s” eye view of a story in which they were not involved, no chance for maverick suggestions.

No doubt there are huddles between backbench and newsdesks, but it won’t be the same. I recall we had a pocket cartoonist who used to sit in conference and listen to the chat before submitting his ideas. Then he moved out to the sticks and would call in from home to find out what the hot topics were. The backbench was usually busy and didn’t really have the necessary time to devote to the conversation; the cartoonist hadn’t been there to pick up the vibes as stories were built up and knocked down at the four o’clock. And so his offerings were not as funny as they had once been. It’s a lesson we learnt in the pandemic – remote working is great. Up to a point. But teamwork and discussion is invaluable. I hope they still have opportunities at the Times to throw around ideas and listen to unlikely voices.

But, of course, the real point Gallagher was making about abandoning conferences to discuss the newspaper was that the print just doesn’t matter any more. It is an acceptance that The Times (and other titles) is no longer a paper with a website attached, but a digital media organisation that happens to have a paper for the old fogeys. For now.

Clarkson’s slugfest

After that depressing thought, let’s finish with a headline that made me laugh. As ever, it came from the Daily Star, which has been very busy with psycho seagulls and other rampant wildlife of late. On Tuesday, it splashed on Jeremy Clarkson (“Creepy Jez”) saying he would kill 18bn slugs. That’s quite a lot. It wasn’t the main head that led to the chuckling, though. It was the strap: “Daily Star’s hug a slug campaign isn’t going as well as we had hoped”. Beautiful.


Front page of the fortnight

And I’m sticking with the Star for this take on the Liz Truss memoir. Great stuff.

The lettuce returns...

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