Last Thursday, I, along with 2.7 million other viewers, tuned into BBC1’s Question Time, to watch award-winning historian (and BBC presenter) Simon Schama take on Rod Liddle, the outspoken columnist. It was to prove an eye-opening encounter – for reasons that go to the heart of intellectual debate in Britain today.
There was much to look forward to. Schama, the very acme of cosmopolitan sophistication, is an internationally acclaimed university professor. Liddle is a bluntly spoken Millwall FC supporter with controversial views on immigration.
Thus, about 30 minutes in, all hell broke loose when an audience member asked about the international refugee crisis. Liddle said he didn’t think it was a good idea to open our borders to those fleeing from conflict zones.
Schama gave the journalist a withering look. ‘Go back to your journalistic hackery… and turn your suburban face away from the plight of the miserable,’ he sneered. For a second, I couldn’t believe my ears. (To read more, click here.)
I can’t say I’m surprised that Playboy has decided to stop publishing pictures of naked women. On the contrary, I was amazed to learn that it still does. What on earth is the point of a nudie magazine in an era when pornography of every conceivable kind is available at the click of a mouse?
Hugh Heffner, the magazine’s 89-year-old founder, has always strongly objected to the word “pornography” – he prefers “erotica”, obviously – and to be fair he did manage to position Playboy as more upmarket than rivals like Penthouse and Hustler. In its heyday, it included interviews with the likes of Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter and could afford to pay proper writers like Norman Mailer and Martin Amis to contribute. I’ve even taken Heff’s shilling myself.
But will this sophisticated gloss be enough to sustain the brand once the famous pictorials have been junked? The “new” Playboy will only include photographs that can be categorised as “PG-13”, i.e. suitable for those aged 13 and above. And by “suitable”, I mean images considered appropriate by the mothers of 13-year-old boys, not the boys themselves. (To read more, click here.)
And they're off. The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign has finally launched, following the launch of Vote Leave last week and, so far, Vote Leave looks much the stronger of the two. I'm a staunch Eurosceptic, so find it hard to be objective, but it's difficult to imagine Europhiles being impressed by their team.
For one thing, the people running the 'In' campaign – Roland Rudd, Peter Mandelson, Danny Alexander – are exactly the same people who were behind the Britain in Europe campaign, which lobbied for Britain to join the Euro. As this attack video assembled by Dan Hannan puts it, "Wrong then, wrong now." Rather comically, the i has splashed today on Ken Clarke's support for the 'Remain' campaign. Quelle surprise. If Mr Europe ever expressed the faintest trace of scepticism about the EU, that would be a story. (To read more, click here.)
In the Preface to Call Me Dave (Biteback, £20.00, pp.608), Michael Ashcroft recounts how David Cameron reneged on a deal he thought they'd made before the 2010 General Election, whereby he agreed to become Deputy Chairman of the Conservatives and pour resources into the Party's marginal seats campaign in return for a big government job. But when Cameron made it to Downing Street, the only position Ashcroft was offered was that of a "junior" whip in the Foreign Office, a proposal he describes as "declinable".
With barely concealed bitterness, Ashcroft complains that even his lowly assistant, the MP Gavin Barwell, went on to become a "senior" government whip.
Ashcroft then goes on to claim that Call Me Dave "is not about settling scores". On the contrary, it is "objective", as well as "balanced and fair". To give you an idea of how laughably implausible this is, the first chapter, which describes Cameron's social set in the Cotswolds, is called "Chipping Snorton".
Call Me Dave is what's known in the trade as a "hatchet job" and, to achieve his purpose, Ashcroft hired Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist responsible for the downfall of Chris Huhne, to wield the axe. For a reported sum of Â£250,000, Oakeshott has been looking in the Prime Minister's cupboards for two years, desperately searching for skeletons, and she's turned up precious little.
Don't get me wrong. The book contains a smorgasbord of scandalous revelations and readers who already think Cameron is a heartless toff will find plenty of juicy titbits here. But nearly all the stories, such as the one about the Prime Minister sticking a part of his anatomy into the severed head of a pig while being initiated into an Oxford dining society, don't withstand scrutiny. Cameron wasn't a member of the society in question and, in any event, it had no such initiation ritual.
The only reason Ashcroft and Oakeshott can publish this story is because they know the Prime Minister won't sue for fear of drawing even more attention to it and Ashcroft owns the company that has published the book. But "fair and balanced" journalism it aint.
It's the type of scurrilous rumour you'd expect to find in an unauthorised biography of Elvis Presley by a Sunday Sport journalist, right after the chapter about his abandoned World War Two bomber on Mars.
To be fair, the book does contain some genuinely good stories, such as the claim that Boris Johnson managed to extract a pledge from George Osborne to spend Ã�Â£93 million on extra policing in London in return for not writing anything critical about the government in his newspaper column. "That was the best-paid column ever," joked the Mayor.
But few people will take these potentially embarrassing revelations seriously after the maelstrom of unsubstantiated tittle-tattle.
Within the Conservative Party, Ashcroft has been described as a "suicide bomber" â�� he doesn't care how much damage he does to himself, just so long as he takes down the Prime Minister. That he's harmed his own reputation, there can be no doubt, but the Prime Minister remains unscathed. On the contrary, any fair-minded person reading this book will conclude that Cameron was right to keep this kamikaze pilot away from the levers of power.
The mood at the Conservatives Party Conference this week was a little subdued, and no wonder. As those who watched the television coverage will know, everyone entering the secure zone had to run a gauntlet of potty-mouthed protestors. It’s not easy to celebrate after you’ve just been showered with spit and called a “Tory murderer”.
On Tuesday, as I made my way to the convention complex, I came up with a brainwave. Instead of just walking through the police barriers, eyes glued to the ground, I would invite one of the protestors to have lunch with me. My plan was to persuade them that I wasn’t an evil scumbag, but someone who shared many of the same values as them. It would be a small victory in an otherwise unsettling few days.
Sure enough, I was met with a chorus of abuse as I approached the barrier. A line of police officers stood between the protestors and me and I asked one of them if it would be okay if I wriggled through. “On your head be it mate,” he said, stepping aside.
“You’ve probably never met someone like me before and I’ve never met anyone like you,” I said to the first group I came to. “Why don’t I buy one of you lunch and we can spend some time getting to know each other?”
The man closest to me, a white Rastafarian with a torn T-shirt, took umbrage at this.
I can’t say I was surprised that Jeremy Corbyn had no hesitation in accepting the £125,000 salary and chauffer-driven car that comes with his new job. After all, this veteran campaigner against inequality was brought up in a seven-bedroom mansion and went to a private school. Like so many Labour leaders before him, it’s a case of do as I say, not do what I do.
As the son of a prominent left-wing intellectual – and brought up in North London, not far from Corbyn’s constituency – I witnessed this hypocrisy at first hand.
When I saw the footage of Corbyn singing the Red Flag at the end of he Labour Party conference, my mind was immediately transported back to Christmas Eve in the mid-1970s and a memorable supper party at the house of Anthony Crosland, then a Labour Secretary of State. (To read more, click here.)
Last week I went to a screening of Steve Jobs, the new biopic about the co-founder of Apple directed by Danny Boyle, and was impressed. It's structured like a three-act play, with each act set backstage at the launch of a new product – in 1984, 1988 and 1998 – and then unfolding in real time. Superficially, the film is about the gradual ascent of Apple (and Steve Jobs) as the dominant force in the personal computer industry, but beneath the surface it's about much more than that. As portrayed by Michael Fassbender, Jobs isn't just a common-or-garden perfectionist. He's neurotic, obsessive, driven, ruthless and almost inhumanly oblivious to the needs of others, including his own daughter. For Jobs, the perambulator in the hall isn't an enemy of promise, as it is for most ambitious people. He simply doesn't notice it.
Tim Cook, the current chief executive of Apple, has criticised the film for portraying his predecessor in an unflattering light, but that's only half-true. One of the subplots of Steve Jobs revolves around his complicated relationship with Steve Wozniak, the other co-founder of Apple, who – in the film, at least – resents the fact that his childhood friend attracts more attention than him. Wozniak questions Jobs's contribution to the development of Apple's products – "What is it that you do, exactly?" – and accuses him of hogging all the credit for what is, essentially, a collaborative enterprise.
But this doubting Thomas never really convinces. (To read more, click here.)
I wanted to let you know about the new issue of Spectator Life that’s out today – free with the latest issue of the Spectator. It’s my first issue in charge as editor and I’m pleased to say that one of our stories – a profile of Alan Yentob by ex-Newsnight producer Meirion Jones – has made it on to the front page of today’s Sun. It’s a great read. The Sun has splashed on the allegation that Yentob branded Meirion and his fellow producer Liz MacKean ‘traitors to the BBC’ after they publicly complained about the Beeb’s decision to pull the film they’d made exposing Jimmy Savile as a paedophile a year before he died. Yentob strongly denies saying this, but Jones’s source – a BBC colleague – claims to have heard it directly from Yentob’s mouth and sent an email to the Director General, which Jones has a copy of, complaining about Yentob’s remark. The Conservative MP Philip Davies has called for an investigation into the matter, so we may not have heard the last of it. (To read more, click here.)