INDEPENDENT 2024-01-31 10:11:09


Nicola Sturgeon at Covid inquiry after calling Boris a ‘f****** clown’

Nicola Sturgeon will give evidence to the official Covid inquiry today amid ongoing scrutiny over deleted WhatsApp messages.

Scotland’s former first minister, who resigned last year, is scheduled to give testimony for a full day at hearings being held in Edinburgh.

Several figures in Ms Sturgeon’s government have already faced questions at the inquiry about their deletion of WhatsApp messages during the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon has conceded that messages had not been retained on her own devices but said she has managed to retrieve copies to submit to the probe.

She said informal messages were handed over to the inquiry last year.

Scottish Government ministers and officials have said decisions were routinely recorded on the official system even if messages were deleted in line with policy.

Last week, Ms Sturgeon’s former chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, gave evidence to the inquiry.

After message exchanges between the pair were shown in evidence, Ms Lloyd denied a decision about guest limits on weddings during the pandemic was made “on the hoof”.

In one message seen by the inquiry, Ms Sturgeon referred to then prime minister Boris Johnson as a “f****** clown.”

Rishi Sunak’s crumbling election hopes hit by triple whammy

Rishi Sunak’s beleaguered premiership has suffered three devastating new blows which threaten to kill off any lingering hopes the Conservatives can avoid a general election defeat.

The prime minister’s plans for a pre-election tax cut to woo back voters were thrown into question after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said the UK government could not afford them.

Mr Sunak’s troubles were compounded when business secretary Kemi Badenoch’s denials that she was plotting to succeed him blew up in her face.

It emerged that she is a member of a Tory WhatsApp group called the “Evil Plotters” along with her political mentor and fellow cabinet minister Michael Gove – known for his Machiavellian scheming.

And in a deeply embarrassing development for Mr Sunak’s Brexiteer credentials, it emerged that the UK population is set to rise by another 6.6 million by 2036.

The Tory leader faced fresh calls from right-wingers to bring in a cap on overall numbers, as Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed the population could hit nearly 74 million by 2036.

The increase is starkly at odds with promises made during the 2016 EU referendum that Brexit would keep immigration down. According to the new projections, 90 per cent of the increase can be attributed to “net migration”.

Suella Braverman – the sacked home secretary, seen as a potential challenger to Mr Sunak – argued that record numbers were “placing pressure on schools, the NHS and housing”. The right-wing rebel dismissed Mr Sunak’s recent tightening of visa rules as too late.

Fellow hardliner Robert Jenrick, who quit as immigration minister over Mr Sunak’s “weak” Rwanda bill, joined Ms Braverman in demanding an overall cap. “This pace of change is far too fast,” he said.

It came as it emerged Ms Badenoch and Mr Gove are members of a Tory Whatsapp group called the “Evil Plotters”.

The business secretary is not believed to be pushing to replace Mr Sunak – but she is reportedly regularly holding lunches with key backers including housing minister Lee Rowley and digital minister Julia Lopez.

A spokesperson for Ms Badenoch did not deny the WhatsApp group claim, but said: “This is exactly the sort of stirring Kemi was referring to when she told people to stop messing around on Sunday.”

It has also been reported that Dougie Smith, a senior Tory strategist who has worked as an adviser to successive prime ministers, is aiding the group of rebels MPs and ex-advisers around Lord Frost who are actively plotting to oust Mr Sunak.

Mr Sunak’s hopes of calming anxious Tory MPs with tax cuts at the March budget were dealt a blow when the IMF warned that tax cuts would be “very challenging to achieve” considering Britain’s growing debt and ageing population.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt dismissed the international body’s advice, arguing that “smart tax reductions” on 6 March would help grow Britain’s ailing economy.

The triple whammy deals a huge blow to Mr Sunak’s current objectives, as he fights to avoid the risk of a landslide election defeat sometime this year.

He and his No 10 had been pinning their hopes in silencing talk of a Tory leadership challenge by cutting income tax, alongside curbing immigration and stopping the boats with his Rwanda plan.

Mr Sunak told ITV’s This Morning on Tuesday that he is “absolutely confident” about the 2024 general election campaign, despite being 20 points behind Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour in the polls.

Elsewhere, a new Tory rift opened up over the Israel-Hamas war, after foreign secretary David Cameron suggested Britain could bring forward formal UK recognition of a Palestinian state.

The key Sunak ally suggested that Britain and others could formally recognise a Palestinian state during peace negotiations, rather than wait for a final peace deal with Israel.

No 10 insisted that there had been “no change” in UK policy. But it sparked a backlash among hardliners, with ex-Tory cabinet minister Theresa Villiers warning that it would only “reward Hamas’s atrocities” after the 7 October terror attack.

But senior Tory MP Alicia Kearns, the head of the foreign affairs committee, welcomed Lord Cameron’s remarks as a “fundamental change in the UK position”.

And leading Conservative Bob Seely – a member of the foreign affairs select committee – told The Independent that he welcomed Lord Cameron’s “constructive” idea.

Mr Sunak also faces the potential for fresh trouble over Brexit, despite the DUP’s decision to back a new agreement with No 10 on trade checks and restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson tried to sell the deal to his party by arguing the agreement would involve “substantive” changes to trade arrangements, claiming they would mean “zero checks” on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

But Downing Street insisted the agreement would not need Mr Sunak to reopen his Windsor Framework deal with the EU.

No 10 played down the significance of a minor change agreed with Brussels expanding the category of “not at risk” goods entering Northern Ireland, insisting that it was “separate” to the changes agreed with the DUP that would be set out on Wednesday.

Brussels warned against any changes to the Windsor deal. “We expect the UK government to fulfil its obligations under the [Windsor] Framework,” said an EU Commission spokesperson.

Martin Bashir claims criticism of Diana interview came from ‘racism and jealousy’

Martin Bashir claimed that professional jealousy and his ethnicity were behind allegations that he had used deceit to secure his controversial interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.

The former BBC journalist said that colleagues did not like the fact that a “second-generation immigrant of non-white, working class roots” had conducted the interview, opposed to well-known presenters such as the Dimblebys.

The email, written just months before documentaries into the Panorama interview exposed the scandal, was disclosed after the BBC was ordered by a judge in December to hand over around 3,000 emails relating to the affair.

Sent on 20 July 2020, Mr Bashir told the head of BBC history, Robert Seatter, that forged documents played no role in obtaining the interview and dismissed the allegations as “this so-called ‘forgery’ story”.

The emails came after journalist and documentary maker Andy Webb submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to the corporation to ask how the interview was secured.

Webb claims that BBC managers tried in 2020 to cover up Bashir’s actions in 1995, which included forging bank documents to obtain Diana and her brother Earl Spencer’s trust.

In his email, Mr Bashir wrote: “I am sorry to hear that this so-called ‘forgery’ story has reared its head again.

“It played no part in the interview but did allow professional jealousy, particularly within the corporation, to hang its hat on alleged wrongdoing.

“At the time, it was also apparent that there was some irritation that a second-generation immigrant of non-white, working class roots should have the temerity to enter a Royal Palace and conduct an interview.

“It would have been so much easier if one of the dynastic families (Dimbleby et al) had done it!”

Bashir was born in London to Pakistani parents and attended a comprehensive school in Wandsworth.

He also told Mr Seatter he had been praised by the then-prince of Wales’ staff for not giving interviews about the programme.

He wrote: “Since returning to the UK in 2015, and re-joining the BBC in 2016, senior staff in the Prince of Wales’ Office (to my surprise) have expressed their gratitude for my declining of all requests to discuss the interview.

“As I am sure you will understand, the words of the late princess have been deployed to attack surviving members of the Royal Family, particularly the Prince of Wales, something that I have never wanted to do.

“Some day-who knows when (!)- I will need to look back and reflect upon a career that included but hope was not wholly defined by a single interview.

“For that, I’ll need to work hard at recollection – something that I find very difficult.”

Mr Seatter was asking for a statement from Mr Bashir following being asked to “release an archive interview about the event, which mentions a forgery story involving yourself”.

Mr Bashir appeared to be referring to the then prince of Wales, now King, and journalists David Dimbleby, who regularly covers royal and political occasions for the BBC, and Jonathan Dimbleby, who interviewed Charles about his marriage, in his email.

This was ahead of the November 2020 broadcast of an ITV documentary The Diana Interview: Revenge Of A Princess in which graphic designer Matt Wiessler spoke about mocking up the documents for Bashir.

The BBC later apologised and made a financial settlement with Mr Wiessler.

To also coincide with the 25th anniversary of the interview Channel 4’s Diana: The Truth Behind The Interview aired and Diana: The Interview That Shocked The World were broadcast in the same year.

The newly released documents show Mr Bashir was praised by colleagues at the broadcaster after the interview, with Lord Hall of Birkenhead, who was then the corporation’s director of news, saying Bashir handled it with “excellent judgment”.

In 2020, Lord Dyson, the former Supreme Court Justice, was asked to investigate the handling of the interview and published a report in 2021 that said Mr Bashir had used “deceitful behaviour” by forging the bank statements and showing them to Earl Spencer to gain access to Diana.

He also found that the BBC had covered up their knowledge of Mr Bashir’s behaviour in the 1990s, led to an apology from the corporation and a promise never to show the interview again.

Mr Bashir, a former religion editor, left the BBC in April 2021 citing health reasons following having Covid-19-related complications.

A BBC spokesperson said on Tuesday: “Throughout this process we have taken our responsibilities to comply with the directions of the tribunal extremely seriously.

“Therefore we’ve today released approximately 3,000 documents, some 10,000 pages, to Mr Webb.

“This latest disclosure includes many hundreds of pages of duplicates and material that was not related to the 1995 Panorama, but was nevertheless caught by the electronic searches.

“We have made redactions, where necessary, consistent with the Freedom of Information Act.

“There is nothing to support the allegations that the BBC acted in bad faith in 2020 and we maintain this suggestion is simply wrong.

“We have worked to provide relevant material throughout this lengthy process, which has involved extensive archive and record searches spanning nearly 30 years.

“We have also accepted and apologised when errors have been made and taken extensive steps to rectify those errors.

“Further, as has been said many times, far from attempting to conceal or cover up matters, the BBC commissioned Lord Dyson to conduct an independent investigation so that he could gain a full picture of what happened in 1995, including by obtaining any additional materials that people other than the BBC might possess.

“The BBC provided all relevant documentation that was in the BBC’s possession to the Lord Dyson inquiry.

“Other individuals involved in these events also supplied Lord Dyson with written materials, which are detailed in the report.

“This was published in 2021 and the findings accepted in full by the BBC.”

Adele to perform first European shows in eight years

Adele has announced her first shows in Europe in eight years, with the singer set to perform in Germany this summer.

The multiple Grammy winner confirmed that she will play exclusive summer shows in Munich, Germany in August 2024, with shows on the 2nd, 3rd, 9th, and 10th, in a social media post on Wednesday (31 January).

The concerts will be held at the Munich Messe, with Adele performing in an open-air, bespoke arena that can accommodate 80,000 people every night.

Sharing artwork for the show, the 35-year-old “Easy on Me” hitmaker said she was “too curious to not indulge” in performing at a “one-off, bespoke pop-up stadium designed around whatever show I want to put on” in a statement shared on Instagram.

She checked off her reasons for agreeing to the shows, including showing her support for American gymnast Simone Biles at the 2024 Summer Olympics “next door” in Paris as well as performing in the “random but still fabulous” Munich.

Adele, who is currently performing the last leg of her Las Vegas residency, wrote: “So a few months ago I got a call about a summer run of shows. I’ve been content as anything with my shows in London’s Hyde Park and my residency in Vegas, so I hadn’t had any other plans.

“However, I was too curious to not follow up and indulge in this idea, a one off, bespoke pop-up stadium designed around whatever show I want to put on? Ohh!? Pretty much slap bang in the middle of Europe? In Munich? That’s a bit random, but still fabulous!

“Right after the Euros? Come on England! With the Olympics next door? Go on Simone [Biles]! And some of my favourite artists playing shows too? Why…YES!! I haven’t played in Europe since 2016!”

She went on to say, “I couldn’t think of a more wonderful way to spend my summer” before signing her post off: “Guten tag, babes x”

During one of her recent Weekends with Adele shows in Las Vegas, the musician, who hails from Tottenham, said she wants to prioritise her fitness after the residency ends in June.

“I don’t normally do New Year resolutions but I want to build my muscles in my core and my goal at the end is to learn how to do a backflip and not be in pain,” Adele told the crowd during a performance in Sin City last weekend.

“Once my shows have finished, I want to do weekly activities with my friends in my house at home, an activity every week,” she added.

Universal Music Group to pull songs from TikTok in furious row

The world’s biggest music company is embroiled in a furious row with TikTok, meaning songs by pop titans including Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and The Beatles could all be wiped from the social media platform within the next 24 hours.

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, allows users to upload short-form videos that are usually soundtracked by licensed music, sound effects or samples from films and TV shows.

On Wednesday (31 January) Universal Music Group published an unprecedented open letter – titled “Why We Must Call Time on TikTok” – accusing the site of attempting to “bully and intimidate” the company into accepting a deal that was “worth less” than the previous one and not reflective of TikTok’s “exponential growth”.

TikTok allegedly accounts for “only about one per cent” of UMG’s total revenue, which the music company said was evidence of “how little TikTok compensates artists and songwriters”.

UMG claimed that, during negotiations for a new licensing agreement, TikTok had proposed paying its artists and songwriters “a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay”.

It also criticised TikTok for supposedly allowing the platform to be “flooded” with AI-generated recordings, along with tools to enable users to create and promote AI music on the platform, then demanding a contractual right which it said would allow the content to “massively dilute” the royalty pool for human artists.

When negotiations stalled, TikTok allegedly began “selectively removing” the music of some of its developing artists while keeping its most popular, “audience-driving” stars.

“TikTok’s tactics are obvious: use its platform power to hurt vulnerable artists and try to intimidate us into conceding to a bad deal that undervalues music and shortchanges artists and songwriters as well as their fans,” UMG said in its statement.

The removal of the company’s catalogue would undoubtedly cause a huge stir among users on the platform. It currently holds the rights to global artists including Swift, The Beatles, Drake, The Weeknd, Bob Dylan, Justin Bieber, Coldplay, Ariana Grande, Kendrick Lamar and Elton John.

It also owns the rights to what is currently one of TikTok’s most popular songs: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 hit, “Murder on the Dancefloor”, which is experiencing a resurgence thanks to its inclusion on the Saltburn soundtrack.

Hitting back at UMG, TikTok accused the company of putting “their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters”.

“It is sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters,” it said in a statement shared with The Independent.

“Despite Universal’s false narrative and rhetoric, the fact is they have chosen to walk away from the powerful support of a platform with well over a billion users that serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent.

“TikTok has been able to reach ‘artist-first’ agreements with every other label and publisher. Clearly, Universal’s self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.“

The Independent has contacted Universal Music Group for additional comment.

Drug and alcohol support could turn your life around

If you have a problem with drink or drugs, there are a wide range of services that can help.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint the time when it turned into a dependency or addiction,” says Darren Lacey, 45, who lives in Dover, Kent.

“With alcohol consumption, a tolerance builds up. By my early 20s, I was drinking every day. It got to the point when I turned 30 in 2008 that I was waking up and drinking in the morning to get going then drinking all through work.”

Darren didn’t seek help until he was 40 – but now his life has been transformed after he got support for his alcohol problem.

“I felt like a little child. Why couldn’t I do this for myself? I could see the pain and worry and stress in mum’s eyes but you can’t force someone to seek help until they’re ready – that can be hard to accept.”

Darren’s turnaround shows just how transformative help with an addiction can be. Treatment is available, treatment works and you or your loved one can access it easily.

Drug and alcohol problems can be a hard subject to discuss, especially if you think your friend or relative has a problem.

It is important to try to stay open-minded and remember that, with the right help and support, most people overcome problematic use before any serious harm is caused.

“I got a taste for alcohol as a teenager. It took me away from real life and it became a coping strategy,” says Phil Hetherington, 42.

“From Thursday to Saturday, I went to pubs and clubs in Hartlepool where you could pay £10 and drink as much as you wanted, then on Sunday it was a pound a drink all day. I had to find my rock bottom before I could contemplate going into recovery services.”

After moving to Darlington, Phil was given a card for the Forward Trust, a charity which runs 80 services in England and Scotland as well as an online chat support service.

He enrolled on their 12 Steps to Recovery programme surrounded by a group of people going through the same thing.

“When you’re in that dark place, you believe you’re the only person in that situation. But when you go to your first group, you realise you’re not alone and you can chat it out. Give it a go and start engaging because there is hope for you,” he says.

“Addiction is like a full-time job – you’re not only thinking about drinking, you’re also trying to cover your tracks. I wouldn’t pay bills so I could buy more alcohol, but it all comes out in the wash eventually.”

Phil has been more than 365 days without drinking alcohol, and he now runs his own support group offering activities such as pool, dodgeball and football to support the mental health of other people in recovery.

If your friend or family member is happy, you can contact FRANK, or the local drug and alcohol service on their behalf. You, or the person you are worried for can call FRANK anytime on 0300 123 6600 or visit talktofrank.com/help for confidential advice and information.

In addition to treatment services, there are mutual aid groups that offer support from a community of people in recovery.

These include Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery UK – and for families and friends Al Anon, Families Anonymous.

These groups can play an important role in providing additional support for many people. They are volunteer run and each group is different so if you go to one that isn’t for you, try another.

Recognising a Palestinian state would be a welcome breakthrough

While David Cameron enjoyed mixed reviews for his premiership and then suffered severe reputational damage during his brief career as a lobbyist, as a foreign secretary the now Lord Cameron is now enjoying a metamorphosis into a statesman.

It is indeed the mark of a statesman to know when to make a bold move, and Lord Cameron has certainly done so with his initiative on Palestinian nationhood.

He was admirably clear about his ambition: “We should be starting to set out what a Palestinian state would look like – what it would comprise, how it would work. As that happens, we, with allies, will look at the issue of recognising a Palestinian state, including at the United Nations. This could be one of the things that helps to make this process irreversible.”

Do Covid WhatsApps show Scotland’s government was as bad as London?

Revelations from the Covid inquiry suggest the Scottish government could sometimes be as cronyistic, secretive and foul-mouthed as the one in Whitehall. It was also arguably quite as prone to playing politics with the pandemic as its counterpart in London.

The latest news is that the former deputy first minister and pandemic minister, John Swinney, manually deleted WhatsApp messages, just as some figures in London had.

The inquiry, still chaired by former judge Baroness Hallett but presently sitting in Edinburgh, also heard that the Scottish finance minister at the time, Kate Forbes, wasn’t invited to so-called “gold command” meetings and Ms Forbes was “not even sure” they existed at the time.