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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Real journalism is in decline

The Michelle Mone PPE scandal is a test of trust in modern democracy and needs to be at the forefront of media attention

Image: The New European

It is interesting how much of the best public service journalism these days is done by non-journalists. By journalism I mean the investigation of important people and issues, and the publication of significant or interesting findings.

Sadly, several of our newspapers no longer do journalism; they do Tory Party propaganda. Hence, the Tories brief one right wing newspaper that “next week is NHS week”, and lo, come Monday morning, different Daily Mail editions in different nations of the UK have front pages attacking, variously, Labour in opposition in England, Labour in government in Wales and the SNP in government in Scotland. They don’t bother so much with Northern Ireland, where the locals say the NHS is even worse than in England, because nobody can vote Tory there.

With so many journalists working on papers where real journalism is resting in peace, we need the non-journalist journalists more than ever. One such is tax expert Dan Neidle. It was he who dug away for months to expose the truth about the irregular tax affairs of the (briefly) chancellor Nadhim Zahawi.

That Zahawi is now a former chancellor, and former whatever other jobs he had in the chaotic incompetence of the last few years, is a victory for those standards, and for Neidle’s refusal to be cowed by blustering politicians or their lawyers’ letters, or to play the game so many “real journalists” (sic) play, which is to print whatever is served up at dictation speed by the Tory spin machine.

So it was a good to hear that Dan Neidle is now on the case of Tory peer Michelle Mone and her husband, Douglas Barrowman, over the firm that picked up more than £200m by sailing into the government’s Covid “VIP lane” (Tory donors and supporters most welcome) for providing 25 million medical gowns that were never used because they did not meet the required regulatory standard. There are more details in a piece by my colleague James Ball that follows this diary.

Lest I be accused of tarring all papers with the same brush, the Guardian has done some sterling work on the story, not least late last year reporting that an Isle of Man trust, of which Mone and her children are beneficiaries, had received £29m originating from PPE Medpro, the firm created for the trip down the VIP lane, via a series of offshore transactions involving Barrowman. Mone’s lawyer had previously said she had not declared PPE Medpro in the House of Lords register of financial interests as “she did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”. Mmm.

Meanwhile, the National Crime Agency seems to be taking an absolute age with its investigation into potential fraud at PPE Medpro, which is now being sued by the government because of the unusability of the gowns provided.

Perhaps Dan Neidle will get there ahead of the NCA. The focus of his inquiries so far is very much on fairly technical questions related to laws that require all firms to register the name of the person who controls them. But remember, it was technicalities that did for Al Capone. Silly bugger admitted he had earned $100,000 in years he had paid no tax, and got done for tax evasion. $100K! Chicken feed, as Boris Johnson used to say of his six-figure Telegraph salary.

I am not saying Johnson, Mone and Barrowman are mobsters. Innocent until proven guilty and all that – and through their lawyers they have accused their accusers of making allegations that are “grounded entirely on supposition and speculation and not based on accuracy”.

But the sums of money involved are mind-blowing, the systems created for their delivery a disgrace, Covid crisis or not, and the mere fact of anyone trousering £200m for providing PPE that wasn’t used… criminal innit?

And before the New European lawyer gets too jumpy, there are two basic definitions of “criminal”. The formal one is about breaking the law, which is a matter for the law enforcement authorities; the informal one is used to describe something that is “deplorable and shocking”. £200m for gowns not fit to be used. Shocking. Deplorable. Ministers and most of the media silent. Shocking. Deplorable. A country run by and for the bloody Tories. Shocking. Deplorable. Keep Neidling, Dan… your country needs you!

Sticking with matters of the law, friends in that world tell me the government’s targeting of “lefty lawyers” is already putting some of them off taking on immigration cases. Doubtless this will be celebrated in No 10, from where “nice guy” Smiley Sunak and his Australian puppet-masters are spearheading their “Stop the Boats” national propaganda mission.

But it should make any decent lawyer attached to the government totally ashamed. And I am afraid that includes you, Alex Chalk. As justice secretary, Chalk should be standing up for the rule of law, and the role of lawyers that is central to it. He knows full well that lawyers take on all manner of cases. If someone defends a murderer or a rapist, does that make them a murderer or a rapist?

This “lefty lawyers” nonsense is from the same stable as the Mail’s “Enemies of the People” attack on judges who dared to do their job over Brexit. The whole approach is based on the premise that the job of lawyers is not to support clients, but to support the government.

So Alex Chalk should unequivocally condemn the Tory Party for enlisting client journalists to target immigration and asylum lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie. That they did shows how far we have fallen as a country under this populist rabble. “It is akin to something you would expect in Russia or Zimbabwe,” complains my wig-wearing friend, “not the UK.”

Back in 1994, when Neil Kinnock was trying to talk me out of working for Tony Blair, one of the strongest arguments he made – beyond “it will ruin your life!” – was that my journalistic career was going well and, in Neil’s view, “you could be the next Michael Parkinson”. There have been plenty of big-name interviewers since, but none that can truly claim to be “the next Michael Parkinson”.

His lovely wife, Mary, certainly had her worries about “the next Parky” conundrum. At a Lord’s Test match some years ago, she pleaded with me to “get a chat show”, and when I asked why, she said: “Because I’m worried people will say Piers Morgan is the new Michael Parkinson!”

I was touched, but truth be told, nobody has ever got near Parky.

A terrific journalist, a brilliant interviewer, a lovely man who just made people feel better to be alive.

NEWS UPDATE: May I thank the Sun for proving the point I made in the main item, a couple of days after I wrote it. “ONCE IN A BLUE MONE:” trilled the headline in their “Showbiz: Celebrity” section: “Lingerie tycoon Baroness Michelle Mone, 51, stuns as she’s snapped outside posh London restaurant.” Stunning indeed… the dark glasses a must for any self-respecting “celebrity” stepping out of a swanky car en route to swanky eatery… body-hugging white trousers and white top with light-coloured jacket matching the immaculate hair… gold handle on handbag matching gold buttons on the jacket… stunning, really stunning.

Some of the PPE background was covered in the story below the headline. But can you imagine the headlines they could have put on the picture? And would’ve done, I suspect, had she been on the wrong side of the political fence.

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