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Pro-Russian Slovakia PM’s assassination attempt ‘politically motivated’, government claims

Slovakia’s pro-Russia prime minister Robert Fico was on Wednesday night fighting for life after he was shot in a “politically motivated” assassination attempt.

Doctors were operating on the populist leader several hours after a gunman fired at least four times at him as he met supporters in the western town of Handlova.

Robert Kalnia, the Slovakian defence minister, described Mr Fico’s condition as “extremely serious”, with at least one bullet hitting him in the abdomen.

“I would like to thank all the emergency services and doctors […] who at this moment are still fighting for the life of the prime minister,” he said. “His situation is bad.”

Slovakia’s deputy prime minister Tomas Taraba told the BBC he believed Mr Fico “will survive” and is no longer in a life-threatening situation. 

“I was very shocked … fortunately as far as I know the operation went well – and I guess in the end he will survive … he’s not in a life threatening situation at this moment,” he told BBC’s Newshour late on Wednesday.

The suspect, who witnesses said called for Mr Fico’s attention before opening fire at close range, was last night in police custody after being tackled by the prime minister’s security detail.

He was named as Juraj Cintula, a 71-year-old government critic and poet from the western town of Levice, who was reported to have owned the gun legally.

Matus Sutaj Estok, the interior minister, said an initial investigation showed there was a “clear political motivation” behind the attempted assassination.

He said the suspect conceived of the plot in the wake of Mr Fico’s re-election to a third term last year.

In a video shared on social media apparently after his detention, Mr Cintula said he “did not agree with government policy”.

The leader of the Left-wing nationalist Direction-Social Democracy party (Smer), Mr Fico campaigned for office on a nationalist platform of ending weapons deliveries to Ukraine and focusing on the needs of citizens impacted by the cost-of-living crisis.

In office, the 59-year-old has hit out at EU sanctions on Russia and halted all arms deliveries to Ukraine, earning praise from the Kremlin.

Describing the shooting as a “monstrous” crime, Vladimir Putin said in a telegram to Slovakia’s president: “I know Robert Fico as a courageous and strong-minded man. I very much hope that these qualities will help him to survive this difficult situation.”

World leaders were united in condemnation of the attack, with Joe Biden offering American help as it grappled with what he called an “horrific act of violence”.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, said he was “shocked to hear this awful news. All our thoughts are with Prime Minister Fico and his family”.

Smer politicians pointed the finger of blame at progressive journalists for stoking hatred against a prime minister known for his love of bodybuilding, fast cars, and football, and hatred of migrants and Covid regulations.

Lubos Blaha, the deputy parliament speaker and a close ally of Mr Fico, blamed what he called the “liberal media” and Slovakia’s political opposition for creating an atmosphere that led to the shooting.

Mr Sutaj Estok also claimed the media were to blame. He criticised reporters for “sowing this hatred” and abdicating their “social responsibility”. They must “stop this hate”, he added.

General Prosecutor Maroš Žilinka vowed that law enforcement would be uncompromising in pursuing justice and punishment for the attacker.

“It is the culmination of those sentiments that are nurtured in society. It is a manifestation of hatred, a manifestation of an attack not only on a person, but also as an attack on the prime minister, as well as an attack on the very essence of statehood,” he said on social media.

Mr Fico, 59, was greeting a crowd in Handlova after a government meeting when the attacker opened fire.

A voice was heard shouting “Robo come here” to the prime minister from the crowd of about 50 onlookers outside a cultural centre before several shots rang out at about 2.50pm local time.

“He shouted at him to come closer, he lured him to him and pulled out a gun,” said one witness.

“When the shots rang out, I almost became deaf,” a woman at the scene added.

Elected for fourth time

Footage of the shooting showed the prime minister doubling over as he was hit, slumping into a flower bed with his back to the metal railing separating him from the public.

As his security detail and police enter the crowd, Mr Fico is carried, bent double, to a car by two of his guards, while the others flank them on their guard for further attacks.

The camera pans round to show two policemen on top of what appears to be the suspect on the ground. Mr Fico’s car then races off at speed.

Mr Fico, who was elected for a fourth stint as prime minister in October after running a campaign promising to end support for Ukraine, was flown by helicopter to Banska Bystrica Hospital from Handlova, which is 93 miles from the capital Bratislava.

Footage showed the prime minister being rushed into the hospital on a stretcher. A message posted on Mr Fico’s Facebook account said his condition was “life-threatening”.

“The next few hours will decide,” it said, explaining he was taken to Banska Bystrica Hospital, 63 miles away from Handlova because it would take too long to get to Bratislava for emergency surgery.

Mobile phones confiscated

Before Mr Fico was taken into the operating room, medical staff at the hospital had their mobile phones confiscated to ensure a news blackout around the surgery.

This is the first assassination attempt on a senior politician in the modern history of Slovakia, which separated from the Czech Republic on Jan 1 1993.

However, government officials have faced intensifying death threats since the war in Ukraine.

Until the Left-wing populist’s election, Slovakia was one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters. However, Mr Fico has railed against EU sanctions on the Kremlin and opposed sending weapons to Ukraine.

His victory was seen as a blow to pro-Western forces and a boon to leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has also criticised sanctions for harming the economy.

Mr Fico has refused to join a Czech-led coalition of EU states buying ammunition for Kyiv. He campaigned on a promise not to send “one more round” to Ukraine from Slovakia, where there is deep distrust of Nato.

‘Ukraine should be blamed’

Margarita Simonyan, the editor of Kremlin propaganda channel RT, said that Ukraine should be blamed for the assassination attempt.

That would suit Moscow, but there is no serious suggestion that Kyiv is responsible for an attack on the leader of a Nato and EU member state, which are two organisations Ukraine wants to join.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, condemned the attack as “appalling”.

“We sincerely hope Robert Fico recovers soon and express our solidarity with the people of Slovakia,” he said.

Peter Pellegrini, Slovakia’s president-elect and a close ally of Mr Fico, called the assassination attempt “a threat to everything that has adorned Slovak democracy so far”.

Mr Fico led the ruling Smer party in 1999 and has led it ever since. He holds the record for the longest serving prime minister in Slovak history.

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Allison Pearson: My tearful interview with Kevin Spacey proves he’s MeToo’s greatest casualty

How long before Kevin Spacey is allowed to be uncancelled? Seriously, I’m curious. It has been almost seven years since Spacey had the leper’s bell hung around his neck. Is it to be a life sentence or are the millions who relish this great actor’s performances to be allowed to see him back where he belongs, on stage and screen?

I must admit that, until recently, I had vaguely, and without paying much attention, taken the no-smoke-without-fire view of Spacey. Hollywood bigshot exploits his position for sexual favours – it’s the oldest story in the book. Then I watched the new Channel 4 documentary, Spacey Unmasked (Spacey Stitched Up, more like), and a long, revelatory interview in which the fallen star spoke to journalist Dan Wootton, and I completely changed my mind.

Ten men, nearly all failed actors, pour out tales of woe in the two-part documentary that pretty much add up to heavy petting plus crushing disappointment. (Spacey apparently let them down by failing to become their mentor or read their terrible screenplays.) It was not nice or acceptable behaviour, as the star now readily admits, and some will find it distasteful, but the fair-minded will surely wonder how a man can be eternally damned for so little. 

In one particularly ludicrous testimony, a drama classmate surfaces from high school, 48 years ago, to complain that the young Kevin Fowler, as Spacey was then, put his hand on his crotch when they were driving to a party. That was almost obligatory for teenagers in steamed-up cars in the 1970s, as I recall. 

The whole production was staged for tragic effect, with moody lighting, a tearful walk-out and amateur hysterics about the two-time Oscar winner being a predator and “cold-eyed monster”. Such is the growing feeling of injustice that several major celebrities, including Sharon Stone and Liam Neeson, are beginning to speak out to demand that Spacey is given a second chance.

Even Channel 4 has to admit that if the allegations are true (we’ll get to that), nothing Spacey is accused of is actually criminal. As the theatre critic and veteran journalist Libby Purves observed after watching the programme, “Even to a straight, Christian, conventional old bat like me, I tell you that none of it seems worth bringing ruin on a human being.” Quite. I now feel immense compassion for Spacey, tinged with anger at the clear injustice. 

Even at the peak of the MeToo movement, no one fell faster from grace than Spacey, who had scaled the dramatic heights with films such as The Usual Suspects (winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) and American Beauty (Best Actor). “My life was finished in four days,” Spacey tells me in an emotional interview from his Baltimore home earlier this week. 

He looks chipper in a plaid shirt and speaks with great eloquence, of course, showing a consideration and restraint his accusers don’t deserve – but battling to salvage his reputation in endless court cases has clearly taken its toll. There is a vulnerability to him, a frayed rawness around the edges that surfaces when he breaks down several times during our conversation. At one point, I am so distressed by his distress that I feel like crying too, but we are here to set the record straight, so I plough on. 

If this were a movie it would start here, preferably with a laconic voiceover by Spacey. In October 2017, the same month that a New York Times investigation into allegations of sexual assault by the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein set off the MeToo movement, an actor named Anthony Rapp was apparently emboldened by the outpouring of stories. He publicly accused Spacey of molesting him at a party in 1986, when Rapp was 14 and Spacey in his late 20s.

Within hours, Spacey responded on social media, saying he had no recollection of the incident, adding, “But if I did behave then as he describes, [I] owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior and I am sorry for the feelings he has described carrying with him all these years.” He then went on to compound the damage from that notably inept statement by coming out as gay, something he had denied for years. Understandably, there was widespread outrage that Spacey appeared to have used his coming out to excuse a sex crime.

But it wasn’t true. In 2022 a jury took 80 minutes to clear Spacey of all allegations. Rapp was subsequently ordered to pay Spacey $40,000 (£31,600) in damages. You would have thought that was pretty conclusive, wouldn’t you? But Rapp’s attorney at the time insisted that, while they accepted the jury’s verdict, “Anthony told his truth in court”.

It is the cruel catch 22 of cancel culture that being innocent may afford no protection against being treated as guilty.

After Rapp came forward, Spacey swiftly lost several roles, including that of the thrillingly villainous American Iago, President Frank Underwood, in the Netflix show House of Cards (five seasons in). The film director Ridley Scott excised him from his film All the Money in the World (Spacey’s scenes were re-shot with the late Christopher Plummer). “It was a business issue,” Scott said briskly, protecting his project from the contagion of toxic reputation.

I wonder if Spacey feels that the complaints against him were blown out of proportion on the rising tide of MeToo fury?

“Well, I think that there was definitely a rush to judgment,” he says carefully. “And I think that, to some degree, corporations then put themselves in a situation where they now had to behave in the same way toward anyone who was accused of anything. I mean, if the companies that I had an incredible partnership with had stood up and said, ‘We hear you and we take allegations seriously and we’re going to investigate this. And when we discover what the truth is, we’re going to tell you how we’re going to react.’ But, instead, they publicly divorced themselves from me and said that they would never work with me again before a single question had been asked. Certainly, when Netflix did that, and we’d had an enormous success together, people must have thought, ‘Well, they must have the dirt on him.’ So then everyone else decided to react punitively toward me. And all I ever wanted was for people to ask questions and investigate. And I am well aware that that did not happen.”

In August 2022, Spacey was ordered to pay $31 million (£25.5 million) to the producers of House of Cards over losses relating to allegations of sexual misconduct by him, after losing an appeal over the sum. But it’s a bitter irony that Netfix now refuses either to release, or to sell, Spacey’s final work for them, a biopic of the critic and celebrated wit Gore Vidal. Vidal, who also had a predilection for younger men and saying outrageous things, should consider himself lucky that he’s dead; he’d certainly be cancelled if he were alive today. What about the specific allegations? One young actor, who appeared in a production of Sweet Bird of Youth in 2013, when Spacey was running the Old Vic theatre, claimed he groped him in public at an after-party held at the Savoy. The accuser says, “He pulled me in closer and in my ear he whispered, ‘Don’t worry about it.’” Is that true?

Spacey shakes his head. “It’s not true.”

So what is the motive of someone like that to speak out and say that happened to him?

“I don’t know. But I would say this, when Anthony Rapp told his story [against me], there were a number of people who came forward to tell another story because they felt so strongly that Anthony Rapp was telling the truth. The story must be true. Well, it isn’t true, and it wasn’t true. And there were other stories that followed that also weren’t true, or there were parts of them that were true, or they had been exaggerated or not happened at all. I think some people maybe think that they’re helping and doing the right thing.”

Spacey says a lot of “incredible progress” has happened because of the MeToo movement, which is decent of him since he can count himself among its biggest casualties. But he also indicates the unfairness of not giving the accused an “opportunity to actually have a fair shot at being able to prove that either something didn’t happen or there are circumstances that make it questionable”.

The Channel 4 producers did initially approach friends of Spacey for comment, but when the star was found not guilty, they never called back, he says. Spacey is suspicious. “I think clearly they must have thought, back in 2022 when they announced that they were going to do this documentary, that I was going to lose the Anthony Rapp case, and by the time it came out I’d be in jail and they would be really ahead of the curve. But, you know, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, and perhaps because they had already at that point spent money, I think they just decided that they wanted to go ahead with it.”

This is Spacey politely saying that he believes the agenda was to make an explosive take-down that would sell around the world and bury him once and for all. In fact, in the brief time since the documentary aired, Spacey and his manager, Evan Lowenstein (who has stood by him throughout, and to whom he is devoted), have already managed to come up with evidence that “at the very least calls into question some of the allegations”. More of that in a minute.

Surely he is not saying there was never any truth in multiple tales of unsolicited body contact and grabbing crotches? Spacey, who has called himself a “big flirt”, said they were “clumsy passes”. “You’re not claiming you never behaved badly, are you?”

“I am not saying that. I am absolutely accepting that, at times, I behaved poorly. And if anyone wonders, you know, Kevin, why would you have done that? I say, Yes, you’re right, I was involved in horseplay and I was involved in interactions on set that I thought were just fun. And I made a lot of jokes and, you know, sexual innuendos. And it was more common in those circumstances than it is now. And I might have been having fun because everyone was laughing, and that’s what I wanted to have people do. But to have learnt later in conversations I had with people I worked with that, actually, they felt I was belittling them, which was horrible to hear, because I never, ever wanted to do that intentionally. Those conversations have been really important because I’ve then been able to have those conversations with my therapist and try to get to the root of why did I do that? And to make sure that in work environments in the future, I never, ever put myself in a situation where I ever hurt anybody or my conduct is questionable. It’s upsetting that sometimes I behaved in ways that I will never behave in again.”

Spacey has notably softened his tone since he posted a defiant video over Christmas 2018, Let Me Be Frank, in which he reprised his role as Frank Underwood, delivering a storming soliloquy smouldering with fury and contempt for those who brought him (Underwood, Spacey, or both?) down.

“But you wouldn’t believe the worst without evidence, would you?” Underwood taunts.“You wouldn’t rush to judgment without fact, would you? I mean, if you and I have learnt nothing else these past few years, it’s that in life and art, nothing should be off the table. We weren’t afraid, not of what we said, not of what we did. And we are still not afraid. Because I can promise you this, if I didn’t pay the price for the things we both know I did, I’m certainly not going to pay the price for the things I didn’t.”

To watch that video today is to be reminded of the astonishing visceral power of a thespian who is currently in painful exile from his calling. He makes your heart thump. We have heard of actors disappearing into character, but to watch character disappear into actor, and to not quite know where man ends and performance begins, is truly something. Both mesmerising and weird at the same time, it makes you wonder about the state of mind of the man who made it.

Which is Spacey: the artistic giant who once bestrode his industry now raging at the McCarthyite mob who took him down, or the newly therapised, humble, remorseful Kevin I encounter, who talks of “programmes” where he has learnt to trust and become a better person? There are moments in our interview when he’s talking so compellingly, so charmingly – one accuser compared him to Kaa, the “Trust in Me” snake in The Jungle Book – and I suddenly find myself thinking, “Ah, yes, but of course you’re convincing me, you’re Kevin Spacey!”

Is he acting? Is a swimmer in water? Is a peregrine falcon hunting? It is who he is. You can make your own minds up when you watch the video of our interview, but, for what it’s worth, I believe him. He’s simply too broken, too tired to keep the mask in place, although, inevitably and quite forgivably, Spacey wants to say whatever it is that can help him “find a path back”. It’s a wistful phrase he uses again and again. 

Dorothy Byrne, one of the producers of Spacey Unmasked, has said she hopes it could be a MeToo moment for men. That made me laugh. Two of the accusers are former Marines so beefy they could squash Spacey like a beetle. (Any comparison with what Weinstein did to young actresses are as odious as they are absurd.) One guy even admits on camera that he was prepared to do “something I didn’t want to do” to the star in the hope of getting “something I did want”. There’s a word for that. It’ll come to me. 

Spacey says he watched an interview with Byrne. “It seemed to me that this is a person who has decided that she’s judge, jury, prosecutor. I mean, she actually talked about these things as if they’d actually happened. And we (Spacey and Lowenstein) know that we’re going to present evidence that some of those individuals pursued me for years after they claimed that I had done some terrible thing.” 

The documentary begins with Daniel, who had a small part as a Secret Service agent in House of Cards, and accuses Spacey of touching him inappropriately on set in 2013. Three years later, after he had left the show, Daniel sent Spacey provocative pictures – at Spacey’s request – which Lowenstein sent me with a date stamp so there can be no mistake. “We were very friendly to each other,” Spacey says, “and at no time did he ever say that any of our horseplay had upset him in any way, shape or form.”

It’s all too familiar to Spacey. “There’s one case where someone accused me of something in 1998 and said they never spoke to me again, and I was a terrible person. And I have emails from this person in 2011 saying how great it was to have seen me when I was in LA and wondering whether I might put him up for a role in Captain Phillips, a film that I was producing. I mean, OK, does anyone see the logic in that?”

What intrigues me is the power dynamic. The two-time Oscar winner clearly exerted a powerful hold over those guys who considered themselves “a nobody” compared to him. Was there really no part of you, Kevin, that didn’t exploit that power? 

I’m a kid from South Orange, New Jersey, who was raised in Southern California in very, very more-than-modest surroundings,” he says, “My father was unemployed so often that by the time I was 10 we’d moved about eight times. I came from nothing, and I have not spent my life looking at myself the way other people see me. I look at myself as unbelievably fortunate to have been given the opportunities that I’ve had. And, you know, there’s power dynamics in every relationship. But I never used my position in a quid pro quo, ‘if you come into my trailer I’m gonna give you a part or I’ll give you an audition’ way. Doesn’t mean I didn’t recommend people to a director, but there was no price to pay. Absolutely not. Now, it appears what some of the accusers are saying is they thought because I’d had a 15-minute conversation with them, or got stoned with them, or had a drink with them, that I was now going to be their mentor, which is not what was occurring.”

Spacey kept a low profile for several years, possibly in the mistaken hope it would speed his rehabilitation. Ten months ago, a court in London cleared him of nine charges including sexual assault (a reporter who sat through the case told me the evidence was flaky and occasionally farcical). Afterwards, the actor expressed the hope that this exoneration would mean he could finally work again. But this latest attack from Channel 4, almost calculated to derail a comeback, is too much. He is ready to break his silence and fight.

Kevin Spacey Fowler was born in July 1959 to Thomas and Kathleen. He has an elder brother, Randall (Randy), and a sister, Julie Ann. In the documentary, Randy paints a horrifying picture of their father as a brutal Nazi sympathiser who sexually abused him. Randy, “a kook” according to Lowenstein, has been selling unpleasant stories about Spacey for years although the actor has a letter from his brother thanking him effusively for a large gift of cash which saved his business. Their mother adored and protected Kevin, although it was clearly not the ideal upbringing for a sensitive, imaginative boy who may already have had confused thoughts about his sexuality.

“I didn’t know what I was,” Spacey recalls, “All I know is there were times when my father would say things that were very homophobic and very upsetting, and I was certainly afraid of that. And I think that there were other things in my family that taught me very early on that secrets kept me safe. So that was automatic for me. Secrets. Now I realise it didn’t keep me safe.”

Young Kevin always wanted to be a performer and had a gift for impersonations. He could have been a stand-up comedian, but ended up winning a place at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York to study acting. He was thrilled when he landed his first part as “a rock or something” in Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park for $125 a week.

You know, I think one reason Spacey lied for so long about being gay – strenuously denying it to Playboy magazine and even telling an interviewer he had a girlfriend – is not just because any star who has come out in Hollywood has never gone on having a career as a leading man or lady. Fear of his father had made him so repressed that he probably didn’t want to admit it, not even to himself. Spacey’s jarring use of the antediluvian “horseplay” for his lunges at men sounds like someone trapped in a more disapproving era with a lot of shame about his desires. 

Being secretive, unknowable, was a huge part of Spacey’s success as an actor, I think. In the Nineties, he enjoyed an amazing run of films: Glengarry Glen Ross (rivetingly good alongside his mentor and father figure Jack Lemmon), The Usual Suspects and Se7en (terrifying), followed in 1997 by LA Confidential. Two years later there was American Beauty, which won him the Oscar for playing Lester Burnham, an advertising executive having a midlife crisis and sexually obsessed with his 16-year-old daughter’s best friend. Lester ends up being murdered by his in-the-closet, homophobic neighbour. As if the ghost of Thomas Fowler had come back to punish his son.

What we see in almost every Spacey performance is the importance of him remaining calm and even serene, however crazy the stuff going on around him is; the voice (no one ever seems to say how beautiful the voice is, but it is) has a lot to do with it. 

Spacey always puts on a great show, but he’s much less of a showboat than you might expect. Audiences always seek him out and wait for him to turn up, but he makes sure not to hog the stage; he doesn’t need to make that kind of effort.

Note also that, however solemn the material, he’s almost never not funny. Comedy is always at the edge of things, a lightning flash of wit in the darkness. (That was true of Cary Grant as well, another actor with secrets.) He is also a brilliant mimic, and acknowledged as one even in the business. Maybe that’s why he’s at his best when one kind of life conceals another – the mad doomy dreamer inside the shell of the loser in American Beauty; the evil genius inside the limping lowlife in Usual Suspects. It’s all about how much you can hide and still get away with things. Life as a nasty game, best approached by keeping your cards close to your chest; showing your hand would only spoil the fun. How much of this is dramatic skill and how much pathology, who knows?

Did Spacey’s track record for playing creeps and villains make people more willing to believe ill of him when the allegations started to fly? Was it being such a great actor that somehow sealed his fate? I reckon there is something in that. Was there also a double standard applied to him because he wasn’t heterosexual? (Spacey wryly observes that there are quite a number of men “who are well known, who throughout history and even today, are what the press likes to call “legendary Lotharios”. You never hear a gay man called that.)

Although our interview has had moments of real distress, I sense Spacey is more hopeful than he has been for a long time. He says he and Lowenstein play what they call the red-button game. “If you push the red button, it goes back in time and none of the bad stuff will have happened. Would I push the button? And the answer now is no. Because despite the challenges and the difficulties and the pain and the bad days, I’ve also witnessed the most beautiful demonstrations of friendship and love and family. And had conversations and experiences and just seen things in everyday life. Small moments. Making someone laugh. I wouldn’t want to miss any of those. And those far outweigh all the negative stuff that you’ve just listed, Allison. Far outweigh it.”

It’s true that there are a lot of substantial figures in his industry now calling vocally for Spacey to be allowed to resume his career. They emailed me in the last couple of days. 

“I can’t wait to see Kevin back at work. He is a genius,” said Sharon Stone. “He is so elegant and fun, generous to a fault and knows more about our craft than most of us ever will. Of course people wanted and want to be around him; it’s terrible that they are blaming him for not being able to come to terms with themselves for using him and negotiating with themselves because they didn’t get their secret agendas filled. Fame is an ugly monster.”

Liam Neeson vouched for a friend who is “a good man and a man of character. He’s sensitive, articulate and non-judgmental, with a terrific sense of humour. He is also one of our finest artists in the theatre and on camera. Personally speaking, our industry needs him and misses him greatly.”

Another great actor, The White Lotus star F Murray Abraham, bristled at the injustice. “Kevin Spacey is my friend and I vouch for him unequivocally. Who are these vultures who attack a man who has publicly accepted his responsibility for certain behavior, unlike so many others? Has the world forgotten his huge accomplishments, not only as an actor but as the leader of Britain’s most important theatre company? But all that aside, he is a fine man, I stand with him, and let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Sir Trevor Nunn, the veteran theatre director, who worked with Spacey at the Old Vic, says: “In this country, we believe in the rule of law, and consequently, that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

“Kevin Spacey faced long court proceedings in the UK and was found, by the jury, to be innocent of all charges. But now, a Channel 4 documentary is urging viewers to believe that the accused is guilty, whatever a jury may have previously decided.

“In my view, Kevin is an actor of genius, on stage and on screen. He was a thrilling, complex and in Shakespeare’s heightened language, a compulsively tragic Richard II.  But then he was the moral centre of my production of Inherit the Wind, when he played the lawyer at the heart of the story, based on the famous Clarence Darrow. The roles could not have been more different, but he was equally charismatic in both.

“In light of the court’s verdict, surely it is time for this man to be forgiven for whatever poor judgments he may have made in the past and allowed to resume his career, after seven years of exile?”

British broadcaster Stephen Fry submitted a balanced testimony it’s hard to argue with. “I don’t know anybody in the profession who didn’t admire Kevin Spacey as an actor, director, producer and theatre administrator… No one can doubt that he has been clumsy and ‘inappropriate’ on many occasions – he made too many people uncomfortable, embarrassed and upset. 

“To bracket him with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, however, to continue to harass and hound him, to devote a whole documentary to accusations that simply do not add up to crimes… how can that be considered proportionate and justified? He hasn’t hidden away, he has given full-on interviews accepting and owning the mistaken and unacceptable behaviour of his past. 

“I saw the recent Channel 4 documentary and while we can justifiably feel that the people interviewed certainly might have cause for complaint, there was nothing said there to bring a gleam to the prosecutor’s eye. Why was it made? To what purpose? His reputation is already wrecked. Surely it is wrong to continue to batter a reputation on the strength of assertion and rhetoric rather than evidence and proof? 

“There is not the faintest chance that he will so much as tap a stranger on the shoulder in future. I am pretty sure most people have got the measure of his past behaviour, but very, very few believe he should be continually pilloried and jeered. Unless I’m missing something, I think he has paid the price.”

And what a price. The beautiful home we see behind Spacey as he talks is in foreclosure, taken from him as so much else has been. In the past couple of years, he has been offered some great roles he was desperate to play but, at every turn, there is another block. The writers no longer object to Kevin speaking their words, the actors (most of them) are OK appearing alongside him, the producers and directors are cool, the sales and money men have been persuaded it’s not a liability to have the name Spacey attached to their project (as if!).

Jeez, who are these petty moralising gatekeepers who would keep perhaps the finest actor of his generation in the wilderness? Shame on them. I tell Spacey I think viewers would be very happy to see him and he says he has had only lovely, kind comments from members of the public who approach him.

Spacey says he is disappointed to have lost out on roles for these reasons. “But I believe that audiences believe in me. It’s just unfortunate that a single person is speaking for the entire British public, or a few people in studios or networks or streaming services are speaking for the entire American public. I think that someone will roll the dice and say, ‘I believe in you. I believe in you as an actor, and I believe in you as a human being. And I believe that you’ve learnt and I believe that you’ve changed. And I want to give you an opportunity to come back.’ And that’s going to be an opportunity I’m going to embrace and honour.”

In the days that I have been thinking and writing about Spacey, a line by the poet Thomas Wyatt has been flitting through my head. “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.” It’s a mysterious poem, freighted with loss and sadness. There’s an actor who could do that injustice justice, who knows how it feels when people flee from you.

As we say our goodbyes, Spacey is back on droll form, still finding the comedy amid the darkness, still coming up with good reasons to uncancel him. A hint of a sly smile: “My hope is that, from a business perspective, you know, my stock is low, so I’m a bargain, right?”

Oh, and what a bargain Kevin Spacey would be for anyone bold enough to offer that path back to redemption. Let him act.

You can hear Allison Pearson discuss her Kevin Spacey interview with Liam Halligan on the Planet Normal podcast, available from 7am on Thursday morning

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Cyclists who kill face life in prison

Cyclists who kill people face life in prison, the Transport Secretary has announced.

Mark Harper has promised to change the law so that dangerous cyclists face the same punishments as dangerous drivers.

The maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is life in prison.

Mr Harper said: “Dangerous cyclists who kill or seriously injure others should face the same penalties as other road users. Today I have agreed a way forward to ensure the Criminal Justice Bill contains powers to hold irresponsible cyclists to account, paving the way for even safer streets.

“Most cyclists, like most drivers, are responsible and considerate. But it’s only right that the tiny minority who recklessly disregard others face the full weight of the law for doing so.

“Just like car drivers who flout the law, we are backing this legislation introducing new offences around dangerous cycling. These new measures will help protect law-abiding cyclists, pedestrians and other road users, whilst ensuring justice is done.”

It comes after The Telegraph revealed how a speeding cyclist doing timed laps in Regent’s Park was involved in a fatal collision with an 81-year-old woman but he was not charged with any criminal offence.

At present, dangerous cyclists can only be jailed for up to two years, under Victorian laws designed to deal with horses.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, had tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill in an attempt to change the law so cyclists faced tougher sentences and Laura Farris, the safeguarding and victims minister, announced in the Commons on Wednesday that the Government would back the amendment.

In the next few weeks it will be redrafted and re-introduced in the House of Lords.

Sir Iain’s amendment had called for a maximum sentence for dangerous cycling of 14 years, but a source at the Department for Transport said this would be increased to a life sentence “to reflect changes made by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022”, which increased penalties for motorists.

“For instance, the maximum life sentence introduced for the most serious offences that result in a death should also apply to cycling offences, and the offence of causing serious injury by careless, or inconsiderate, driving should have an equivalent cycling offence,” the source said.

Ms Farris confirmed that the Government would back Sir Iain’s planned changes as she hailed his “excellent speech”.

“It isn’t in dispute that whether it is a car or an electric scooter or whether it’s a bicycle, if it’s operated in a certain way it is effectively a dangerous weapon on the road,” she said.

“We are supportive of his amendment, we will be changing it in the Lords as he knows but we are accepting it.”

Speaking in the Commons to launch his amendment, Sir Iain said it would ensure that cyclists are held accountable for their actions, enhance road safety and provide justice for victims and their families.

“It is very simply an amendment to try and bring what has for some reason been completely left out of the normal criminal codes and the Highway Code,” he said.

“Let me just make absolutely clear I’m completely pro and very keen for more cycling to take place: it’s very good for individuals and it’s very good for the environment.

“This is not anti-cycling. Quite the opposite: it’s about making sure this takes place in a safe and reasonable manner.”

He was watched over from the public gallery by Matthew Briggs, whose wife was killed by a cyclist in 2016. 

Earlier this month The Telegraph revealed that Brian Fitzgerald, a director at Credit Suisse, was in a “fast group” of cyclists doing timed laps of Regent’s Park in London when Hilda Griffiths, 81, crossed the road they were on to try to reach a pedestrian island.

Despite a 20mph speed limit, Mr Fitzgerald, a member of the Muswell Hill Peloton cycling club, told a coroner they were travelling at up to 29mph in aerodynamic “pace line” formation to maximise momentum when he struck the retired nursery teacher walking her dog.

He said he had “zero reaction time”, adding that cyclists were not required to obey 20mph signs because “the legal speed limit doesn’t apply to cyclists [the same] as motorists”.

Police concluded there was “insufficient evidence for a real prospect of conviction” and the case closed with “no further action”.

In the Commons, the former Tory leader read a series of statistics showing that between 2018 and 2022, almost 2,000 pedestrians collided with a pedal cycle.

In nine of these collisions someone died, 657 suffered very serious injuries, and 1,292 people suffered minor injuries. But he said most people did not report crashes with cyclists as they did not believe anything would be done.

He said that of the 331 admitted to hospital in 2022-23 following collisions with a cyclist, six were over 90 and 11 were under the age of four.

Sir Iain said the problem could get worse because there has been an explosion of electric bikes.

“The amendment will achieve equal accountability just as drivers are held accountable for dangerous driving which results in death, cyclists should face similar consequences for reckless behaviour that leads to fatalities,” he said.

“Stricter penalties for dangerous cyclists can act as a deterrent. Families of victims deserve justice and closure. Outdated laws do not adequately address cycling-related fatalities which leave victims and families bereft.

“Updating traffic laws can contribute to safer road environments for all users.”

Sir Iain said he recommended the amendment to the Government, adding: “I recognise that this amendment isn’t perfect. It should be adopted by the government and then it can be modified where necessary in a further debate in the other place.

“Action is better than inaction in so many cases.”

His amendment would create an offence of causing death or serious injury by “dangerous, careless or inconsiderate cycling”.

A serious injury would have to amount to “grievous bodily harm” under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, and would lead to five years in jail.

Cyclists would have to show that their bike is properly maintained. The law would cover pedal cycles, electrically assisted pedal cycles, and mechanically propelled personal transporters including electric scooters and self-balancing personal transporters.

You can recap the day below and join the conversation in the comments section here.

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Labour chief claimed £40,000 expenses to rent house next door

Sir Keir Starmer’s election chief claimed more than £40,000 on expenses for rent on a constituency home despite owning the house next door.

Pat McFadden, who as national campaign co-ordinator is one of Labour’s most powerful figures, used the unusual living arrangement for five years.

He moved out of his own property in July 2012, a month before expenses rules were changed to bar MPs from claiming for mortgage interest.

The revelations sparked accusations he had abused the “spirit of the rules” and prompted calls for change to stop taxpayers subsidising MPs’ property portfolios.

A spokesman for Mr McFadden said he had “complied with the IPSA rules at all times” and pointed out that he eventually sold his house for a loss.

The New Labour veteran, who was first elected in 2005, bought a newbuild home in his Wolverhampton constituency for £159,950 in 2006.

He lived there for six years, claiming expenses for mortgage interest of £547 a month, until he moved out in July 2012 because of the rule change.

That month he let out his house and moved next door, where he started claiming the £625 a month rent on expenses as his constituency home.

His own property was advertised for £700 a month by a letting agent in August 2015.

The living arrangement was first reported by The Sunday Times in September 2015, by which point Mr McFadden had claimed £21,000 in rent.

At the time he said he was forced into the move by the change to expenses rules and that he could not sell the house he owned because it was in negative equity.

‘Not making any profit’

He told the newspaper that his living situation was “a direct result of the change in rules for MPs’ accommodation costs” introduced in 2012.

“I did not want to move out of my constituency home and did not want to rent it out. I have not sought at any stage to get round the IPSA rules but instead to comply with them,” he said.

Mr McFadden also insisted he was not making any profit from the situation.

It can now be revealed that despite the criticism, he kept the arrangement for a further two years, almost doubling the total amount he claimed in rent to £40,250.

He eventually sold the house he owned in November 2017, with title deeds showing that he made a £12,950 loss on the original price he had paid.

The Labour veteran separately owns a house in north London, which he bought in 2009 for £799,950, and which is now valued at an estimated £1.74 million.

‘Against spirit of expenses rule’

Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said Mr McFadden’s living arrangements went against the spirit of expenses rules.

“All MPs have a strong personal responsibility to ensure that they keep to the minimum the amount that they need to claim from public funds,” he said.

He added that IPSA should review the rules around constituency home allowances to “see what was in the best public interest”.

Parliament’s spending watchdog said that it does not take into account MPs’ personal wealth or property ownership when setting the rules.

“The IPSA Accommodation budget is there to ensure that MPs are not out of pocket from having to work in two locations,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Tories accused Mr McFadden of “rank hypocrisy” given that Labour has repeatedly accused them of wasting public money.

‘Hypocrisy from Labour’

The party launched a campaign last February attacking the Conservatives over “lavish spending” on hotels and restaurants using Government credit cards.

Gary Sambrook, the Tory MP for Birmingham Northfield, said: “Labour’s election campaign is being run by a man who used taxpayers’ money to subsidise a tidy property portfolio, owning two houses whilst living in a third – in total contravention of the spirit of the rules.

“Once again it’s more rank hypocrisy from the Labour Party who are all too happy to point the finger at everyone and anyone, without a shred of integrity of their own.”

Mr McFadden and his wife Marianna are two of the most influential figures in Sir Keir’s top team and would play a crucial role in a future Labour government.

He is responsible for planning the party’s election strategy and is regularly sent out on the airwaves to sell its policies.

He was brought back into the fold having served as a minister under Sir Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and as a shadow minister under Jeremy Corbyn.

Mrs McFadden, meanwhile, is the deputy to Morgan McSweeney, who is considered to be Sir Keir’s most senior and powerful adviser.

A Labour spokesman said: “Mr McFadden has complied with the IPSA rules at all times. In 2017 he sold his property in Wolverhampton at a loss, which he paid for personally.”

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Police chief backs Government on stop and search

The head of England’s second largest police force has backed the Government on stop and search, saying a drive in the tactic had reduced knife crime hospital admissions by more than a quarter.

Stephen Watson, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, who has turned around the failing force with a back-to-basics approach, said stop and search done “lawfully, objectively and respectfully” was not controversial. “It’s police work,” he said in an interview with The Telegraph.

Mr Watson, whose force has been rated the most improved in England and Wales, has quadrupled stop and searches from 11,745 when he took over three years ago to 46,029 in the past year. This led to a fivefold increase – 438 per cent – in arrests and seizures of weapons, drugs or stolen goods, as well as reducing the number of victims.

“You will find people who will say there’s no causal link between stop and search and reducing crime,” he said.

“I cannot produce academic evidence that links stop and search to reducing crime. All I know is that as a police officer for 36 years, if you don’t stop and search and do not operate proactively, bad things happen.

“Is there a link between our quadrupling stop and search and a reduction in robbery and a reduction in firearms discharges in the street? I think there is.

“Is there a link between that and a 27 per cent reduction in people presenting at hospitals with knife injuries in Greater Manchester? I think there is.

“Is there a link between the fact that we are seizing more than 1,000 vehicles a month and the fact that fatalities are down by a third and all collisions are down by 20 per cent. I think there is.”

His comments come a day after Chris Philp, the policing minister, urged forces to increase their use of stop and search to combat a surge in knife crime to record levels in London and other areas in England and Wales.

Mr Watson said there had been fewer complaints despite the rise in stop and search and claims that it disproportionately targets black people.

“If proportionality were all for example, we’d stop and search far more women. The reality is we tend to stop young men aged 16 to 24. We don’t stop many women, because most of the time, it’s not women committing the offences,” he said.

When he took over the force, Mr Watson adopted a back-to-basics approach that prioritised “proactive” rather than “reactive policing”.

“We pick up the phone, we get to people quickly, we make accurate records, we investigate all reasonable lines of inquiry. We arrest bad people. We bring them to justice on behalf of those victims,” he said.

He put more bobbies on the beat, required officers to pursue every crime lead however minor and attend every burglary, demanded they turn out smartly with polished boots and slashed answer times for 999 calls from 25 seconds three years ago to four seconds – now one of the best performances in the country.

As a result, arrests have almost doubled in three years from 33,000 to 65,000, the force has solved 48 per cent more crimes (up from 24,481 to 36,261) including twice as many burglaries, and attended 88 per cent more domestic abuse incidents. He believes this has helped reduce homicides by 40 per cent to its lowest rate for a decade.

Although knife possession and drug offences are up, as a result of the stop and search approach, all crime is down by 7.7 per cent including neighbourhood crime (down 15.4 per cent), vehicle crime (16.2 per cent), robbery (11.2 per cent) and domestic abuse (9.5 per cent).

It is the second force turned round by Mr Watson, an arch critic of “woke” policing who quipped in a previous Telegraph interview that the only people he took the knee to were Queen Elizabeth II, God and Mrs Watson. He transformed South Yorkshire Police with the same back-to-basics formula.

‘We expect our people to intervene’

He believes officers should investigate and act on anti-social behaviour or if they smell cannabis in the street.

“We do expect our people to intervene when they see stuff that may be unlawful. We do not expect our officers to drive by things which don’t look right, or to walk past things that don’t look right,” he said.

“We should not look at crime through the prism of some sort of Home Office classification. I think you’ll look at crime through the prism of the victim’s experience.

“I expect my officers frankly to enforce moving traffic offences, litter and graffiti, right the way up through the spectrum because this is about being the police and if we’re not doing our jobs, then things start to fall below.

“I’m really proud of the fact that if you look at the performance of the force, it’s as much about the small stuff as it is about the big stuff.”

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Suspects will be freed on bail instead of remanded to ease overcrowding in prisons, lawyers fear

Criminal suspects will be freed on bail rather than remanded into custody because the Ministry of Justice is running out of prison spaces, senior lawyers have warned.

The Law Society said delays in magistrates court hearings ordered by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to ease the prison overcrowding crisis would mean some suspects “who would normally be put forward for remand will be given bail.”

The overcrowding crisis has forced Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, to introduce emergency measures, known as Operation Early Dawn, which means criminal suspects awaiting bail hearings are being held in police cells until prison places become available.

The move has been prompted by the number of spaces in the adult male prison estate falling to just 300 out of a total capacity of 85,000, The Telegraph can reveal.

Ministers have been warned there is virtually no capacity left in the system with one senior prison service official saying: “If we had a repeat of the disturbance in a prison on the scale we had at HMP Birmingham in 2016, we would go bust. That would be it. We would literally be out of space.”

‘How are they going to minimise risk?’

David McNeill, director of public affairs for the Law Society, said the MoJ had yet to reveal how it would prioritise prison space for the most potentially dangerous defendants awaiting a remand or bail hearing.

“They are going to prioritise serious cases, particularly on remand. If you are a defendant in a very serious case or at risk of running away, you will be put in prison on remand prior to the court case,” he said..

“They will triage those for the most serious cases and highest risk which means there is a group who would normally be put forward for remand who will be given bail.

“We don’t know the criteria for that but the determining factor is the availability of prison cells.

“They are making that decision on a daily basis. There is a key question about how they are managing risk. How are they going to minimise risk in those situations?”

Emergency measures in place

On Wednesday hundreds of court hearings were delayed or even postponed at the last minute after emergency measures were introduced to deal with prison overcrowding.

There were chaotic scenes at magistrates courts across the country as suspects who were due to appear for hearings were left in the police cells rather than being produced at court.

The move was intended to prevent a situation arising where defendants were remanded into custody but there was nowhere to take them.

The fall to below 300 available prison places comes despite a series of measures introduced to address overcrowding, including releasing some inmates 70 days earlier than they were due to be freed.

‘Already overflowing’

Tom Wheatley, president of the prison governors’ association, said: “We are already letting the water flow out of the overflowing bath.

“This is an attempt to turn the taps off. We are still struggling with increasing numbers of being sent to prison.

“It is relatively sensible from the viewpoint of prisons. We are trying to slow down the flow but that will cause disruption around the defence community due to the last-minute nature of it.

“All these things are happening at the last minute because they are unpopular.”

Mark Fairhurst, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, said: “They are going to dump prisoners in police cells and only take to court those prisoners they think are either going to be remanded into custody or get sent down.

“That means that they will only take to court those prisoners that they can accommodate in the prison estate because there are spaces available.

“Prisoners will languish in police cells for days or police will have to decide whether to bail them.”

Operation Early Dawn has been invoked twice before, in October and March, and MoJ sources have insisted it is only temporary.

A spokesman admitted magistrates and police were notified late on Tuesday night due to extreme pressure on the prison system, although he said there was a lot of movement in and out of prisons, which would help resolve overcrowding.

Asked if any defendant would be bailed as a result, he said that would be a police decision based on risk.

The spokesman said: “To manage this demand we have brought on thousands of extra places at pace and will introduce strategic oversight of the transfer of remanded offenders from police custody to maintain the running of the justice system.

“This Government is categorical that dangerous offenders should stay behind bars, which is why new laws will keep rapists locked up for every day of their prison sentence and ensure life means life for the most horrific murderers.”

‘Real-life consequences for victims, witnesses and defendants’

But Tom Franklin, the chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, said the implementation of Operation Early Dawn would only add to the huge backlogs at court and said it was illustrative of the “parlous state” of the criminal justice system.

He said: “We are very concerned about these further delays being imposed on cases reaching magistrates’ courts.

“Every case that is delayed has real-life consequences for victims, witnesses and defendants – and leads to magistrates and court staff sitting around waiting, rather than administering justice. That is a waste of resources, at a time when there are already large backlogs.

“It demonstrates the parlous state of the criminal justice system and the need for an injection of more resources at every stage of the justice process.”

Sources have also said police forces are extremely unhappy at having to house defendants in their custody suites.

Dept Chief Constable Nev Kemp, National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Custody, said: “We are working closely with criminal justice system partners to minimise the impact on police resources and allow forces to continue conducting operational business to keep the public safe.”

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