Michael Gove

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The Spectacle of Impunity: Phone-Hacking Cover-Up Claims Cross the Atlantic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/05/2024 - 9:43pm in

This article was first published in the June 2024 print edition of Byline Times

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It’s nearly exactly 10 years since I sat in the hushed court 12 of the Old Bailey to hear the jury forewoman read out the verdicts in the eight-month-long phone-hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, then CEO of News International, on charges of conspiracy to hack phones and pay public officials for stories, and – along with her assistant Cheryl Carter, head of security Mark Hanna, and her husband, Charlie Brooks – charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. All were found not guilty.

The verdict felt momentous.

An estimated £100 million had been spent on the legal teams, police ­investigations, and court costs – more than 70% of that privately by Rupert Murdoch. I’d also been told that, if senior News International executives had been convicted, the police and Crown Prosecution Service were considering ­corporate charges against the company and its ‘controlling mind’. However, all that was swept away by the verdicts.

Minutes later, Brooks’ Deputy Editor at the by then defunct News of the World, and close companion, Andy Coulson, was found guilty of conspiracy to intercept voicemails.

The majority of the other Murdoch journalists in Coulson’s position, with such clear evidence against them, had pleaded guilty before the trial began. But by staying in the trial, Coulson had helped Brooks – the strength of the case against him, made that against her seem ­comparatively weak and more inferential.

Coulson had gone from the News of the World to Downing Street, where he was David Cameron’s head of communications at No 10. Minutes later, the then Prime Minister had to answer questions in the House of Commons from the then Labour Leader Ed Miliband. Cameron said he had given Coulson a “second chance” and regretted it.

It could have been a defining moment.

Boris Johnson, Tony Gallagher, and Rebekah Brooks at the 2020 The Sun Military Awards 2020. Photo: PA

The trial, and the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press – launched following the full exposure of the phone-hacking scandal by the Guardian in 2011 – had unleashed a torrent of information about the ‘merry-go-round’ of clandestine social contacts between senior news editors and newspaper proprietors and top politicians: Rupert Murdoch meeting prospective British Prime Ministers as if he were the ultimate power in the land, and then being invited through the back door to Downing Street when they succeeded, as if in benediction.

It was as if a light had suddenly been turned on in a dark room.

We saw Brooks herself partying with Tony Blair and David Blunkett, and ­enjoying ‘country dinners’ and horse-­riding trips with her Oxfordshire ­neighbour David Cameron. We glimpsed the plush interiors of an elite political-media class that manipulated the public through a series of back-door deals and revolving-door appointments.

But then the light turned off and we were in the dark again.

The Restoration

At the time of the phone-hacking trial verdicts in 2014, it would have been fair comment to suggest that, though Rebekah Brooks was found innocent of several criminal charges, she was guilty of being one of the most incompetent editors and CEOs in recent history – somehow not noticing what the lead prosecutor called the “criminal enterprise” ­operating beneath her.

People speculated that she would have to find another career. So it was almost as great a shock that, within a year, Brooks was back in her old job as head of the now-rebranded News UK, and one of the most influential figures in British media.

And that is how the spectacle of ­impunity became embedded in our lives.

Thanks to a decade of dogged and detailed civil litigation since, we now know much more about the things the media wasn’t punished for.

News UK had started claiming that phone-hacking was the product of a ‘rogue reporter’ and then, by shutting the News of the World, suggesting that it was a ‘rogue’ newspaper – and the criminal news-­gathering operation had nothing to do with Murdoch’s flagship daily tabloid The Sun, which Brooks also edited.

This turned out to be bunk.

More than 1,600 privacy cases have been settled by the company, many of them claims against The Sun, and News UK has paid out about £1 billion to date. Nor was ‘unlawful information-gathering’ limited to voicemail interception. Many of the settled claims involve blagging, theft, landline phone-tapping, surveillance, and unlawful access to private medical and financial records.

On the corporate scale, the evidence of systematic cover-up has only increased during the last decade. My live tweets from the Old Bailey were the basis of ­lawyers seeking disclosure about News UK’s ‘email deletion policy’ (clever Murdoch lawyers tried to rename this their ‘email retention policy’) and it now appears, according to a ‘concealment and destruction’ claim, that the company destroyed vital evidence every time it was asked to preserve it. Some 31 million emails were deleted as civil and criminal cases loomed.

The journalist Nick Davies, who first reported the phone-hacking scandal in the Guardian in 2009, has come out of retirement to dig deeper into the new evidence lodged in these civil claims for Prospect magazine, now edited by his former Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger. He reports on the concerted cover-up by News UK, and how journalists or investigators who might have blown the whistle were rewarded with jobs, or cash payments, and required to sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements).

Davies reveals that it was not only emails that went missing.

Following Brooks’ arrest in July 2011, 125 items were seized by the police and placed in a secure area at the ­company’s Wapping HQ under the supervision of two Murdoch executives, Simon Greenberg and Will Lewis. When ­detectives returned to complete a detailed search of all the equipment, they ­discovered only 117 items remained. Eight filing cabinets seized from the offices of the Editor and the Managing Editor had been removed. They have never been recovered.

But the sense of lawlessness and ­impunity goes further.

Escalation to Espionage

In an account that sounds more like the actions of the East German Stasi secret police, Davies suggests that News UK continued its unlawful news-gathering even as Parliament was investigating it – and that it was using criminal methods to hack the phones of MPs, not for tittle-­tattle or tabloid sleaze, but for “political and commercial espionage”.

From the payments and phone logs ­disclosed by News UK to the civil ­claimants, Davies reports that News UK “employed numerous private investigators to hack private individuals, and also MPs – including Cabinet ministers”. These criminal methods were used to target politicians of every rank including the Attorney General, Business Secretary, and up to the Chancellor, and Prime Minister.

More than 1,500 suspicious calls from the generic number of Murdoch’s Wapping HQ targeted 16 Liberal Democrat MPs and many MPs from other parties. There were suspicious calls to Dominic Grieve, then Attorney General, when as Director of Public Prosecutions he was considering possible prosecutions against journalists.

Five members of the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee – perceived to be hostile to Murdoch’s commercial interests – received hundreds of “inexplicable” calls.

One MP who was hacked told the High Court that the pattern of behaviour was a “cynical and outrageous attempt to ­subvert the legitimate process of ­parliamentary scrutiny”.

Both as Chancellor and then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was targeted 24 times from the Wapping “hub”. He is now considering joining the civil ­claimants against News UK and has written to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley requesting a meeting as a precursor to a new “criminal ­investigation” into these allegations of espionage. He is also asking the police to look at the ­corporate cover-up at News UK.

Whether the police will reopen its ­investigations remains unclear. There is a civil trial against News UK scheduled for next year.

In the meantime, this spectacle of ­impunity of the last decade has served as a stern lesson to the entire political-media class: if they can lie and cover-up vehemently and shamelessly enough, they can get away with it.

It’s not just Rebekah Brooks. For many prominent parties in the phone-hacking scandal, it seems to have helped rather than hindered their careers.

Will Lewis, the News Corp ­executive who should have been overseeing the disclosures to the police, was recently elevated to the role of CEO at The Washington Post – the newspaper once famed for exposing Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up with the fearless reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Former Sun Editor Tony Gallagher, now Editor of The Times, faces civil claims of ‘unlawful information-­gathering’ for ­allegedly commissioning private ­investigators during his time at the Daily Mail as a senior editor.

So too, does Victoria Newton, now Editor of The Sun.

Piers Morgan, who a judge last year concluded ‘must have known’ about phone-hacking when he was Editor of the Mirror, was given a reported £15 million a year three-year contract by Murdoch as a host on Talk TV. No bad deed goes unrewarded.

And it’s not just the media figures.

The example of impunity embodied by these press luminaries shines out over the entire political landscape and goes a long way to explaining the forces underlying many of the disasters of the last decade.

The Rot Spreads

It is surely no accident that the media figures and newspapers involved in ­covering up the ‘dark arts’ of Fleet Street were key players in the lies, dirty data, and electoral dark arts of the EU Referendum campaign in 2016.

Nearly all of these papers pushed the propaganda and disinformation of the official Vote Leave campaign, fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or its unofficial rival Leave.EU led by Nigel Farage. The Sun even registered itself as a campaigning organisation with the Electoral Commission in its fervent ­support for a leave vote in the referendum.

The owners of the Telegraph, having previously been fined for sharing readership data with the Conservative Party during the 2015 General Election, were invited to meetings with the infamous Cambridge Analytica data harvesting company and Leave.EU.

After David Cameron resigned in the wake of the shock result, his successor Theresa May became the next focus of the emboldened political-media class. She was pressured into dropping the overdue second part of the Leveson Inquiry, into the relationships between journalists and the police, which could only take place after the criminal cases had concluded.

Sunday Times columnist Michael Gove and former Telegraph columnist and Spectator Editor Boris Johnson on the Vote Leave campaign bus in Lancashire, during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign. Photo: PA

Her then Culture Secretary Matt Hancock suggested to the House of Commons that Lord Justice Leveson ­himself did not want part two of the inquiry to go ahead – when in fact he had said no such thing, merely that he could not be the presiding judge.

In 2018, when Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer revealed massive data harvesting and misuse, unlawful electoral overspends by Vote Leave, and a riot of meetings between Russians and Leave.EU, these same newspapers did their best to mock or minimise them.
And so the rot spread from Fleet Street to Westminster, undermining all of the norms of political life, both written and unwritten.

The same political-media class went on to topple May and foist Boris Johnson (who called phone-hacking “left-wing codswallop”) on the country.

They applauded his unlawful prorogation of Parliament (the Mail branded the Supreme Court judges who ruled on it ‘enemies of the people’) and his hard exit from the EU. They lauded his handling of the pandemic as ‘following the ­science’ (when Johnson was in fact resisting it).

And, for two years, they ignored the ­multiple breaches of the Ministerial Code, the conflicts of interests with hedge fund donors, and the billions wasted in crony Covid contracts through a ‘VIP’ lane.

During this time, the newspaper cartel benefited from what Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings referred to as “bungs” that were “dressed up as COVID relief” – hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies from the Government in the form of pandemic adverts and VAT relief, as circulation figures dropped during the early days of the crisis.

The rot has not stopped. The impunity lives on.

When Johnson’s self-serving lies and complete lack of standards became too much, the Mail, Telegraph and The Sun boosted his even worse replacement, Liz Truss, whose short tenure in Downing Street caused a run on gilt-edged securities, a near collapse of pension funds, and a massive hike in interest rates.

But both Johnson and Truss are regularly still heralded as ‘true Conservatives’; their historically bankrupt ideas paraded in the pages of the right-wing papers as worthy of our attention. Their past mistakes and misdemeanours papered-over by a press that has too many mistakes and misdemeanours of its own to know the difference.

Who is really ‘blackmailing’ whom? Who is really the client and who is the provider? Or have media and politics so merged that they have become a single entity, corrupting both representative ­politics and the politics of representation?

As we head towards a general ­election, expect this spectacle of impunity to ­intensify and accelerate. Both politicians and the media are like a couple in a danse macabre, locked in an embrace of ­complicity and guilt they cannot escape.

Until the music stops.

Beyond Contempt, Peter Jukes’ account of the phone-hacking trial, is published by Canbury Press

It’s the Conservative Party Which Most ‘Undermines British Values’, Say Voters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 16/03/2024 - 12:40am in

A majority of British voters now believe that it's the Conservative Party which truly doesn’t understand British values, an exclusive new poll commissioned by Byline Times suggests.

Rishi Sunak's Government this week set out its new definition of “extremism” with new restrictions to be placed on individuals and organisations it perceives to be “undermining British values”.

However, new polling conducted this week by pollsters We Think for this paper found that 61% of those surveyed do not believe the Conservative Party “understands British values”, with a further 58% saying the same of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

By contrast, a majority of those surveyed said that the Labour Party (57%) and its leader Keir Starmer (56%) do in fact understand British values.

Those surveyed were also presented with a list of 21 organisations, political parties, companies and individuals, including the Muslim Council of Britain and Britain First and asked to select all those they believed to be “undermining British values”.

Among the options offered, the Conservative Party was the most picked, with 31% saying the party undermines British values, followed by 29% who picked ‘the Government’. 

The third most picked organisation was the Muslim Council of Britain, which was selected by 23% of those surveyed.

Byline Times exclusively revealed his week that the MCB, which represents mosques and Islamic organisations around the UK, had been removed from Michael Gove’s draft list of “extremist” groups amid legal fears among officials.

The list of those set to be targeted by ministers was leaked to this paper on the eve of Gove’s statement to Parliament. 

It prompted a formal Government leak inquiry, with Gove telling MPs that such leaks were "fundamentally a challenge to the effective operation of government”.

Voters Want Conservatives to Hand Back Hester Cash

Voters were also asked what they think about the Conservative party’s continued refusal to hand back the £15 million they have received in donations from the businessman Frank Hester.

The Guardian revealed this week that Hester had called for the MP Diane Abbott to be shot, as she made him “want to hate all black women”.

Sunak's Government initially defended Hester, before eventually admitting that his comments had been “racist and wrong”.

However, despite admitting this, the party is still refusing to hand back the money received from Hester, with the Prime Minister telling MPs he was proud to have received donations from him.

This refusal to return the money puts the party firmly out of step with the British public, according to our poll, which found that 63% of those surveyed believe the party should return the money.

The Hester case has also helped to highlight the broader issue of party funding. Hester made the donations to the Conservatives after having received tens of millions of pounds in Government contracts, via his company TPP.

Asked where those who donate to political parties should be banned from receiving Government contracts, 70% of those surveyed agreed, compared to just 30% who disagreed.

Politicising Dissent: Michael Gove’s New Extremist Definition is ‘an Attack on Civil Liberties’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 15/03/2024 - 12:51am in

The new definition of extremism announced by the Communities Secretary Michael Gove today is a blatant attack on civil liberties and free speech.

We believe this new definition is a highly politicised and undemocratic polemic aimed at trying to exclude and ostracise peaceful and law-abiding Muslim organisations that have been critical of the government from having a voice. Labelling a group that is critical of Government policy as ‘extremist’ is a lazy and convenient way of avoiding dialogue. It is a tactic more suited to authoritarian repressive regimes stifling dissent rather than a pluralistic Western democracy silencing those exposing UK Government complicity in the Gaza ‘plausible genocide’ as designated by the International Court of Justice.

The new definition is ;

Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 

  • negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or
  • undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or
  • intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).
  • negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or
  • undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or
  • intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).
  • Under (1) none of the aforementioned organisations have sought to negate the rights or freedoms of others, and we await to see the evidence upon which any of our organisations would meet this part of the definition. Indeed given the focus in the Government Press Release on “Islamist extremists” in Muslim communities, we expect that this part of the definition will be used to label Muslim groups exercising their democratic right to legitimate criticism and dissent as ‘promoting hatred’ and thus impacting on the freedoms of other groups.

    Under (2), again none of the aforementioned organisations are seeking to replace the “UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy”. We note the manner in which  the definition has been introduced, deliberately avoiding any parliamentary scrutiny debate or criticism, is itself undermining our Parliamentary democracy.  

    Under (3) it is clear that the context for this new ‘anti-extremism’ drive emanates from the Government’s perspective from recent rises in antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate.  

    Moreover, we have to consider whether the Government’s own track record of ‘extremist’ policies has created this ‘permissive environment’ where hate crime is flourishing.

    The Government has a long history of racist and Islamophobic policies including the Windrush Scandal, the ‘hostile environment’ and the discredited Prevent Strategy. More recently senior Conservative MPs have made blatantly racist and Islamophobic comments. The former Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Lee Anderson stated that ‘Islamists’ had ‘got control’ of the London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said “the truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now."

    The former Prime Minister, Liz Truss spoke at a right-wing conference in the US and said “there’s going to be by-election in the next few weeks, and it could be a radical Islamic party win in that by-election. So that is a possibility.” It thus appears that such comments by senior Conservative MPs are driven by a hatred or intolerance of people from the Muslim community, and thus would fall foul of this definition.  

    Gove himself has a long track record of Islamophobic views and associations. He is a founding member of the Henry Jackson Society which is neo-Conservative think tank that has promoted an anti-Muslim agenda over many years. Despite having no expertise in Islam, Islamic theology or history he authored a book called Celsius 7/7 published in 2006  in which he highlighted the threat of “Islamism” in Britain.

    He led the government’s role in ‘The Trojan Horse’ affair. This falsely accused a number of schools in Birmingham of an ‘Islamist takeover’ on the back of a fake letter , perpetuating Islamophobic tropes of Muslims being a ‘fifth column’ and a threat to British democracy. Subsequent inquiries found no evidence of radicalisation in these schools. Given his own ‘extremist’ credentials, for him to be lecturing others as to who is or is not an extremist is an example of rank hypocrisy, and there would appear to be a persuasive argument that he is also an extremist on his own definition!

    The Government’s proposals have been criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and remarkably also by three former Conservative Home Secretaries warning him that  “no political party uses the issue to seek short term tactical advantage.”  This indicates that Michael Gove’s policies appear to be ‘extremist ‘even within his own party.

    Gove stated in the commons that “Islamism is a totalitarian ideology which seeks to divide, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia law and seeks the overthrow of liberal democratic principles”, and added “Organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain, which is the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups such as CAGE and MEND, all give rise to concern for their Islamist orientation and views.”

    We challenge him to provide the evidence to back up his view that the organisations above have called for the establishment of an ‘Islamic state governed by sharia law’. Of course, he has made these comments under the cover of parliamentary privilege and we call upon him to repeat these claims outside of that, if that is what he truly believes.

    In a General Election year, and noting their dismal opinion poll ratings, it is clear that Gove and the Conservative party want to demonstrate their ‘anti-Muslim’ credentials to head off mass defections to the Reform Party and appeal to a far-right electorate. Defining extremism requires a calm, measured and cross-party approach and should not be used as a political football to target marginalised groups.

    Michael Gove Expected to Drop Plans to Put Muslim Council of Britain in List of ‘Extremist’ Groups

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/03/2024 - 3:24am in

    Michael Gove appears to have dropped plans to label Britain’s biggest representative group of mosques and Islamic associations as an “extremist” group, according to draft plans leaked to Byline Times.

    The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is due to make a statement on Thursday outlining his plans to expand the official definition of “extremism”.

    Multiple reports this week suggested Gove would use the statement in order to label the Muslim Council of Britain as an extremist group due to the Government's belief that they have failed to “repudiate or rescind past behaviours” while maintaining associations with those with “extreme” views.

    Inclusion on the list would have meant the MCB would have been blocked from engaging with public authorities due to allegations that they are “undermining... British values” or institutions.

    However, while a leaked draft version of Gove's statement seen by this paper did reference several other prominent Muslim groups, including MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development), CAGE, Friends of Al Aqsa, 5Pillars and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), it does not contain any reference to the MCB.

    The inclusion of Friends of Al Aqsa and the MAB could have major ramifications, as the groups are part of the organising committee for the weekly protests calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, bringing thousands of campaigners out on the streets.

    It is not clear, for example, whether the police's engagement with the two groups over the demonstrations will have to change following their classification as extreme organisations. There are also questions over whether civil servants or even politicians would be barred from attending their events.

    The statement also includes a list of prominent far-right groups, including Britain First, the British National Socialist Movement, and the Patriotic Alternative.

    One well-placed Government source suggested that the MCB had been removed from the list due to fears that including them would have been a step too far, while another source suggested that including the organisation could have left the Government open to significant legal risk.

    Sources suggested that the leaked statement was not the final version due to be put before Parliament on Thursday and that the full list of excluded groups may not now be announced until a later date.

    Despite being apparently removed from the list, there were still suggestions that Gove, or other ministers, could use parliamentary privilege in order to single out the MCB.

    Responding to the original reports, a spokesperson for the group said this week that: “To suggest that the Muslim Council of Britain would fall under arbitrary definitions of extremism is offensive, ludicrous and dangerous.

    “We are a democratic organisation representing a cross-section of British Muslims. After standing accused of peddling Islamophobia, it is ironic that the governing party should lash out and accuse everyone else but themselves of extremism. We shall be monitoring developments and will seek to reserve our position legally.”

    In a statement, the Chair of Friends of Al Aqsa, Ismail Patel, said “Gove and the Tory party are undermining freedom of speech and fermenting cultural wars. They are encouraging Islamophobia and targeting Palestinian peace activists”.

    "The only organisation being divisive and causing harm to the Muslims in the UK is the Tory party and Michael Gove"

    A Government spokesperson declined to comment.

    Selective Extremism

    The Prime Minister came under fire on Wednesday after refusing to distance himself from the Conservative Party donor Frank Hester, for making extreme racist and hateful comments about Diane Abbott.

    Questioned in Parliament, the Prime Minister said he was “proud” that Hester had donated to the party. A Government minister had earlier insisted that the party would be happy to accept a further £10 million donation from the businessman, despite his comments.

    A spokesperson for Sunak refused to say whether Hester’s suggestion that Abbott should be shot would be caught under the Government’s new definition of extremism, but insisted that his “remorse” for his comments “should be accepted”.

    They added that Hester’s donations to the Conservative Party, which made up “the most diverse ever Cabinet” was a sign that he was not a racist.

    Hester has yet to accept that his comments about Abbott making him want to “hate all black women”, while calling for her to be shot, were either racist or sexist. He did however, suggest that they were rude.

    David Meller: Exploring the Political Nexus Behind the Michael Gove Ally Given Controversial £164 million PPE Deals

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/02/2024 - 1:24am in

    As David Meller toasted the New Year at the beginning of 2018, he surely felt he could do no wrong.

    The successful businessman was not only very rich, with a £22 million home in the heart of Mayfair, another place in the hills of Los Angeles, a chauffeur-driven Range Rover, and a jet-set lifestyle which took him around the world to schmooze on the yachts of even wealthier friends.

    He had also, through his work in business, education, sport, and thanks to regular donations to the Conservative Party, built up a vast nexus of political contacts.

    They included not only the Education Secretary Michael Gove, for whom Mr Meller ran a leadership campaign, and future Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi. Meller had even hosted a peace summit for the warring advisors of Conservative giants Prime Minister Theresa May and her predecessor David Cameron.

    As a result, Meller had been awarded a place on the Department for Education’s (DfE) board of directors by Gove himself, and Ms May had made him a CBE in her 2018 New Year’s honours list for ‘services to education’.

    But within three weeks it had all come crashing down, after the men-only President's Club, of which he was co-chairman, became mired in a sexual harassment controversy.

    Forced to quit the DfE board, although allowed to keep his CBE, Meller’s political career seemed over.

    But somehow, it wasn’t.

    Having quietly maintained his links behind the scenes at Westminster, Meller stayed close to Gove. So close, it turned out, that Gove allegedly referred Meller’s beauty company, Meller Designs, to the ‘VIP Lane’ at the height of the pandemic. It had, as a result, been awarded six large Government contracts to supply £164 million of PPE.

    It was a transaction that has since caused Gove and the Government an ongoing headache as it battles widespread allegations of ‘cronyism’ - heightened after Meller was last year elevated to the UK’s prestigious Board of Trade by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who Gove was a friend and ‘mentor’ to. 

    This week the Guardian reported that Gove had failed to register that he had been entertained by Meller in VIP corporate hospitality at a football match four months after Gove’s referral in May 2020, which Gove claimed was an “oversight”.

    Now a court case Meller has brought against a former business associate, reported exclusively by Byline Times earlier this month, is likely to cause the Government further headaches - particularly in a General Election year. 

    The commercial litigation case has seen Meller admit to a “penchant to...delete emails…after they had been actioned…in the usual course of business,” including through the period he negotiated over PPE with the Government.

    It also heard Meller had done several multi-million-pound property deals without bothering to put contracts in place, instead allegedly agreeing to one worth around £1.4 million in association with his super-rich financier friend Michael Sherwood via a single WhatsApp message, and that he tended not to work from a computer or laptop.

    Meller is also said to have allowed his son, Jonathan, to conduct business on his behalf, despite Meller Jnr not yet being 30 at the time to which the litigation relates. 

    But then, it could be argued, Meller’s not your usual multi-millionaire businessman. 

    ‘Fuelled by Struggle with Dyslexia’

    Born in 1959 to German refugees, Meller attended a comprehensive school, earned four O-levels, and "struggled with dyslexia". 

    Aside from giving him the drive to make money, and lots of it (Meller once owned a six-storey Victorian townhouse in Mayfair that he sold in 2015 to the Qatari ruling family for more than £40 million), it was an experience that first fuelled his interest in education, which would in time lead to his long-standing friendship with Gove. 

    In 1987 Meller and his older brother, Charles, took over as joint chief executives of Julius A. Meller Ltd of London, a "diversified manufacturing company" set up in 1913 by his grandfather and later run by his father. 

    The business would later be renamed Meller Designs, a Bedford-based “cosmetics and luxury goods” company through which he brokered the PPE contracts, and which he ran with Charles alongside a range of other companies. 

    It is not known when and how Meller came to meet Mr Sherwood, the controversial and incredibly rich Goldman Sachs executive with whom he struck up an ongoing business relationship and whose joint dealings are currently being scrutinised in court, but they joined the board of Watford Football Club together in November 1999, before departing the same week in January 2004.

    The pair oversaw a turbulent time at Vicarage Road. Badly hit by relegation from the Premiership in 2000 and a disastrous season of extravagant spending under former coach Gianluca Vialli, the club struggled financially. The Hornets lost £10.3 million in 2003 and only avoided administration in 2002 by getting their players and senior staff to agree to a 12 per cent wage deferral.

    Between July 2003 and March 2005, Meller and Sherwood, along with another former Watford director, personally paid the circa £300,000 wages of striker Danny Webber, after he signed from Manchester United. With the trio entitled to around 60 percent of any future transfer fee, Webber was sold in June 2005 to Sheffield United for £500,000, which would have seen them share a profit after their investment of around £20,000, or £6,666 each

    The Meller family involvement in sport did not end there. Meller’s son, Jonathan, with whom Meller is a majority shareholder in an investment company, was later involved in a small football agency, which has not filed accounts since its inception in 2019. 

    Despite a lack of boardroom success, Meller’s time at Watford did allow him to make an impact on the world of education, as he and Sherwood “drove forward” the club’s sponsorship of the Harefield Academy, a £24 million school in Uxbridge, West London. Given the green light in early 2004 by then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, it opened in 2008, and would later educate England and Man United star Jadon Sancho. 

    In 2009, Meller’s passion for education saw him set up the Meller Educational Trust, which makes grants to education organisations, and ran four schools and a university technical college. That year he began funding the Conservatives, and he has since donated around £60,000 to Tory MPs - including £3,250 to Gove - and the central party.

    In 2011 Meller was made a trustee and director of the Conservative-leaning think tank Policy Exchange, which was founded in 2002 by Gove, and Tory grandee Francis Maude.  

    Two years later Meller became the "main backer" of a new school in Elstree, Herts, founded to train students for “back of house” jobs in television, film and theatre, for which he was named in the Evening Standard's list of London's most influential people.

    It is likely to have been around this period in the early 2010s that Meller came into regular contact with Gove, who as Education Secretary was a passionate supporter of academies, and Dominic Cummings, then Gove’s special advisor, who would later go on to become the Chief Adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the pandemic.

    In June 2013 Meller was rewarded by Gove with a place on the Department for Education board as a non-executive member, where he “advise[d] on strategy, operations and the deliverability of policy” while “scrutinising (DfE) delivery and performance”.

    Meller also, in 2014, began serving as co-chair of the National Apprenticeship Ambassador Network and the Apprenticeship Delivery Board, alongside future Conservative minister Nadim Zahawi. The role saw him report to Skills minister Robert Halfon MP, who would in 2015 become deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and received £1,843 from Meller to pay for lawyers in the Mark Clark bullying episode. (An investigation by the law firm Clifford Chance costing £2m identified 13 alleged victims of Clarke, who was appointed by the Conservative Party to run its RoadTrip2015 general election campaign.)

    Having sold his Mayfair mansion to the Qataris, Meller bought an apartment close by in December 2016 for £22 million, his star on the rise, and by 2017, he was very much at the heart of London politics – joining social mobility charity the Mayor’s Fund for London as a trustee in June – as well as having become a major player in the Conservative Party. 

    After he helped run Michael Gove’s brief and unsuccessful 2016 leadership campaign, in October 2017 Meller hosted a dinner at his home between some of PM Theresa May’s and David Cameron’s closest allies, organised to “bury differences and agree on policies to get the Government back on track”.

    Meller - who was reported at the time by The Sunday Times as being “prepared to fund a new organisation to devise policies that can help… restore the party’s fortunes” – was rewarded for his loyalty to the Conservatives by Ms May, who handed him a CBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list for “services to education”. 

    “I’m thrilled and really proud,” Meller said at the time. “It was a complete surprise, I was over the moon. My heart missed a beat. Obviously, the work I do in apprenticeships and education, I get a real kick out of it.”

    Fall and Rise

    But Meller’s ascent through the world of politics collapsed weeks later in January 2018 when the Presidents Club, for which he was co-chairman, was exposed by the Financial Times for not preventing the sexual harassment of its female hosts. 

    The scandal centred around its “secretive” black-tie dinner, compèred by comedian David Walliams and which hosted a number of high-profile figures, including Meller’s former colleague Mr Zahawi. Zahawi had that month been appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education and was a guest on Meller’s table, along with then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Richard (now Lord) Harrington, Labour life peer and lobbyist Lord Johnathan Mendelsohn, and several leading British financiers and businessmen. 

    Jonathan Meller, himself a Presidents Club committee member, was on a table sponsored by one of his businesses, alongside West Ham United’s porn baron owner David Sullivan. 

    There is no suggestion the allegations related to Meller or his son, Zahawi, Mr Harrington, Mr Sullivan, or Mr Mendelsohn, although Mendelsohn was asked to step down from his front-bench role in the wake of the storm, despite publicly decrying what had occurred that night.

    Following a clamour of outrage, Meller resigned from the DfE’s board, the apprenticeship delivery board, and the Mayor's Fund for London. He did, however, keep his CBE title, of which he is said to be fond, and often refers to himself by.

    While the scandal might have meant curtains for most in public life, Meller somehow managed to cling on to his links to the Government, and most notably Gove, which paid off - and how - come the pandemic.

    In August 2020, the Sunday Times revealed Meller Designs had been given a number of contracts to provide coveralls, gloves, respirator masks and hand sanitiser.

    Pointing to Meller’s links to Gove – who in his post as the Cabinet Office Minister in charge of Government procurement, had a duty to ensure that all contracts were awarded “based on value for money… achieved through competition” – it said that in May 2020, the Government ordered £65m worth of Type IIR masks, from Meller Designs, the equivalent of 168 million face coverings.

    With the order successfully fulfilled, a Meller Designs spokesman said at the time: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the crisis and managed to secure more than 150 million items of PPE.”

    But the following month, in September 2020, Byline Times revealed Meller Designs had been awarded two contracts worth a total of £81.8 million – taking its overall Government earnings during the Coronavirus crisis to more than £148 million. 

    In November 2021, it was reported that Gove had referred Meller Designs to the Government’s ‘VIP lane’. 

    The now-infamous fast-track system was put in place for friends and donors of the Conservative Party to get PPE contracts at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, with the National Audit Office later finding that companies referred as potential PPE suppliers by Government ministers, MPs or NHS bosses were 10 times more likely to secure contracts. 

    While the Cabinet Office told Byline Times that "ministers had no involvement in these procurement decisions”, it added: "Potential suppliers often passed on offers of PPE to…ministers – and these offers were then passed onto professional procurement specialists for assessment, with due diligence carried out on all companies in advance of procurement and every company subjected to the same checks."

    Gove is not believed to have made any further statement regarding his apparent involvement in referring Meller Designs to the scheme. He did not respond to any of the questions put to him regarding his long-standing relationship with Meller, including whether it was still ongoing, his thoughts on Meller’s “remarkable” business practices, or the PPE contracts arrangement.

    Last December The Good Law Project uncovered internal Government documents that showed that in three contracts with Meller Designs, the Government paid between 1.2 and 2.2 times the average unit price. The average price for medical gowns was £5.87 but the gowns bought from Meller Designs cost £12.64. About £8.46m worth of the equipment supplied by Meller Designs was also found to be not used in an NHS setting.

    A spokesperson for Meller Designs said then: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the Covid-19 crisis and managed to secure more than 100m items of PPE – including masks, sanitiser, coveralls and gloves direct from the manufacturers – at a time when they were most needed. This PPE was used in hospitals and by emergency services throughout the country.”

    It is not clear why the amount of PPE Meller Designs said it had supplied had dropped from 150 million pieces in August 2020 to 100 million last December. The Cabinet Office refused to comment, directing us instead to Meller Designs. (Meller did not return our request for comment on this matter or any of the other matters reported in this article, and nor did Sherwood.)

    Meller, though, still very much in with the Conservative Party, was again rewarded by the Government last September when he became one of 13 people appointed by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch to the new-look Board of Trade, an influential body which advises the Government on policy. 

    The Department for Business and Trade told Byline Times that advisers are “appointed because of their expertise in trade and economic matters and to help inform our future thinking on international trade”.  

    Referring directly to Meller the department said he was “a businessman with relevant experience that we believe will be valuable to the Board of Trade”, and that “all advisers must undergo and pass due diligence processes prior to their appointment, including David Meller.”

    “It is a basic principle that people, including public figures, should be allowed to take up work and public appointments for which they are qualified when there is no legal reason to obstruct that,” it added. Badenoch did not reply to Byline Times' requests for comment.

    At the time of his appointment – which the Department for Business and Trade has confirmed to this newspaper was a “direct…appointment” of Ms Badenoch, who was until recently extremely close to Gove – Anneliese Dodds, Labour Party chairwoman, said it smacked of cronyism.  

    She said: “The message from the Conservative Government remains clear: give tens of thousands of pounds to the Tories and you’ll be catapulted into positions of power and rewarded with lucrative contracts.”

    David Meller, currently back at the top of the business and political world, appears to be the embodiment of that very message.  How, in a General Election year, Meller’s ongoing links to Gove and the Government, his role in the continuing PPE saga, and now a self-inflicted court battle - with the case to be heard in November - might impact all that remains to be seen.

    Conservative Donor Who Won £164m PPE Contracts Admits Deleting Emails

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/02/2024 - 3:43am in

    A Government trade advisor and Conservative donor, who won Covid contracts worth £164 million after being referred to the ‘VIP Lane’ by his long-term political ally Michael Gove has admitted deleting emails from the account through which he conducted the deals, a court has been told.

    David Meller, who donated tens of thousands of pounds to Mr Gove and the Conservative Party before his beauty firm Meller Designs was awarded six large Government contracts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) at the height of the pandemic, was revealed in a commercial litigation case he has brought against a former business associate to have a “penchant to...delete emails”.

    Solicitors for Meller – who has a vast network of political connections that include senior Conservative politicians Nadhim Zahawi and Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who last year appointed Meller to the UK Board of Trade where he advises the Government on trade strategy – said: “In the usual course of business, Mr Meller had a practice of deleting his emails after they had been actioned.”

    The emails in question relate both to Meller’s personal email address as well as to his Meller Designs email account, and cover everything prior to March 2023.

    It includes the period Meller successfully negotiated the mass supply of PPE with the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for Government procurement and in which Gove was at the time a minister.

    In addition to the practice of deleting his emails, Meller also openly concedes he has agreed several high-value contracts, including one with the Defendant, T&P Real Estate, which is said to exceed £1.4 million, on the back of “oral agreements” and a WhatsApp message.

    Defending, Jonathan Davey KC, for property developer T&P Real Estate, said in a case management hearing on Friday: “This is a remarkable position. For the defendant, being sued in relation to an oral contract, that sets alarm bells ringing.”

    Niall McCullough, for Meller, said his client had been advised while seeking legal advice ahead of the case to “preserve relevant documents”.

    Mr McCullough said: “We didn’t say [Meller] destroyed all documents; we said [he] destroyed some documents. This is not a case where [he has] destroyed everything.

    “This [email deletion] was pre-litigation conduct [which began in March 2023].”

    Mr McCullough conceded it was not known how likely it was that Meller’s emails could be retrieved.

    “We are making enquiries with [Meller’s] IT provider as to the possibility and cost of retrieving emails deleted from his [business] account,” he said. 

    “Our preliminary enquiries…suggest it is unlikely that it will be possible to retrieve deleted items from [Meller’s personal account].”

    A Government spokesperson said: "Ministers had no involvement in these procurement decisions.

    "In the height of the pandemic, we had to act swiftly to procure PPE, competing in a global market where demand massively outstripped supply.

    "Potential suppliers often passed on offers of PPE to MPs, civil servants and ministers – and these offers were then passed onto professional procurement specialists for assessment, with due diligence carried out on all companies in advance of procurement and every company subjected to the same checks."

    A Network of Interests

    Meller's case concerns a 2019 multi-million property redevelopment deal he is alleged to have provided funding towards in association with former Goldman Sachs vice- chairman Michael Sherwood - one of several Meller and Mr Sherwood did together - which has seen Meller’s business practices come under scrutiny.

    Nicknamed ‘Woody’, Sherwood was once one of the City’s highest-paid bankers with a wealth of £185 million, but the 58-year-old quit the firm in 2016 after failing to disclose a request for a £40 million loan from controversial British retailer Sir Philip Green, with whom he had a close friendship and a shared partiality to expensive yachts.

    Aside from his deletion of emails, Meller - who was awarded a CBE in 2018 and was on the Department for Education's board of directors when Gove was Secretary of State for Education, before he resigned in 2018 over a sexual harassment scandal surrounding The Presidents Club, of which he was joint chairman - was revealed in court not to have “worked from” a laptop or desktop computer during the late 2019 period the litigation relates to.

    This was around six months before Meller’s company was awarded the first two of its Government PPE contracts, worth a combined £66.9 million, in May 2020. It is not known in what fashion Meller negotiated those deals in the two months after the pandemic began in March 2020. 

    The businessman - who, despite having admitted borrowing £600,000 from Sherwood to finance the deal because “he did not have the cash funds” is described in court filings as a “high net worth individual” - admitted he agreed his financial backing to the T&P Real Estate Ltd project following a handful of unminuted phone calls and “in person” meetings between himself, Sherwood, and T&P’s then director Joshua Garside. 

    A single WhatsApp message, sent by Mr Garside to Meller, is said to be the only written proof in existence pertaining to any part of the negotiations, the terms of which are disputed by both parties. 

    Meller claims £880,000 of his funding was to be in the form of money “roll[ed] over” from, several named companies he had an interest in, one of which at the time of the alleged loan had been dissolved (Secure Sleep Properties LLP), and another that was in administration and is now insolvent (Wellington Old Co. Ltd).

    Another company named by Meller that he claims to have rolled money over from, Berkshire Assets (West London) Ltd, collapsed last year. The latest administrator’s report showed the company’s investors had lost more than £30 million, and HMRC was owed £186,000.

    After the failure of the deal, the businessman decided to take legal action against T&P Real Estate Ltd in an attempt to recoup money he says he invested. 

    Meller is seeking all of his money back from T&P Real Estate Ltd, plus interest and an exit fee, claiming any money he placed into the £14.5 million redevelopment in Sutton, Surrey, was only ever a loan.

    In response, T&P Real Estate Ltd have launched a counterclaim against Meller.

    They say that the money advanced under the alleged loan arrangement between Sherwood and Meller did not beneficially belong to Meller, that none of the £880,000 “roll over” money promised was ever received, and that Meller failed to bring in a further £1.4 million investment from Marron Capital LLC as they say he had promised to.

    They claim Meller’s son, Jonathan, who is a minor shareholder in one of his father’s investment companies, and who is said to have conducted business on his father’s behalf, had assured them he had had a pre-existing relationship with the US-based investment firm.

    Meller, who has declined to detail the arrangements of the loan from Sherwood but claims he paid it back a year later in November 2020, argues that it should have been the responsibility of Garside - who was a director of a number of companies Meller had an interest in - to enact the “roll over” of funds from their other businesses.

    Meller says it should effectively have been Garside’s responsibility report on the finances of the companies the pair were jointly involved in, and to look after arrangements for the “rolling over” of funding from those companies.

    T&P argue there is no proof that such an arrangement between Meller and Garside existed and, even if it did, such an action lacked “legal legitimacy”. They add that “it would be commercially nonsensical for T&P to accept a ‘rolled-over’ ‘investment’” which ultimately would not amount to any new money being advanced to the company, and instead would be taking on an assumed debt. 

    Meller also says he never agreed it was his obligation to seek investment from Marron Capital LLC, and that he was in fact told by T&P that no funding from Marron Capital LLP was required.

    Byline Times will continue to cover the case, which will go to trial in November. 

    Grenfell: Michael Gove Deflecting the Blame Away from Conservative Politicians 

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 01/02/2024 - 11:48pm in

    Michael Gove is on the warpath. In the Housing Secretary’s crosshairs are the private contractors and suppliers to the Grenfell Tower.

    In Gove’s view, they were to blame for the rapid spread of the fire which killed 72 people in West London in 2017.

    According to Gove, they now have a duty to put right other high-rise towers and apartment blocks that carry the same insulation and cladding materials as Grenfell. In typical Gove fashion, he has not held back in his criticism, accusing cladding company Arconic, of engaging in “shameful practices” and displaying “an abhorrent culture of disregard for the safety of residents in their homes.”

    He claimed that Kingspan, the Irish insulation maker, “is a company that gives capitalism a bad name”.

    Again, his characteristic, guns-blazing tactic includes using all fronts, including social media, to put his message across.

    Anyone reading his department’s postings, and there is much more, could be forgiven for supposing Arconic, Kingspan and the other firms involved in the 2016 installation of cladding and insulation at Grenfell were entirely responsible for the terrible inferno and loss of life.

    You see, it’s all the fault of the greedy, grasping commercial sector, putting profits before people’s lives. The Secretary of State ends one diatribe with: “My Government Department will continue to be driven by its commitment to protect people in their homes. People who bought their rented homes in good faith and whose safety continues to be threatened by your products deserve better from the companies who have exploited their basic need for a home. Those companies who do not share our commitment to righting the wrongs of the past must expect to face commercial consequences.”

    It’s an election year, and for Gove, putting himself in the shoes of the little man is a key part of the Tory strategy. By targeting private business he is exploding the age-old myth that the Tories are on the side of big business.

    Again, though, anyone would think that the public sector had no role to play, that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell stands, central government and London Fire Brigade bore no responsibility - that the tragedy was all down to the commercially rapacious profit chasers.

    Which is why it comes as a surprise, then, to read that Arconic and Kingspan are not the worst offenders - that the worst is the local royal borough council, and that Gove’s own government and the fire service shoulder more of the burden than Kingspan ‘that gives capitalism a bad name.’

    The Bindman Settlement

    While the Grenfell Tower inquiry continues on its pain-staking journey, nine of those organisations, commercial and public, involved in the disaster undertook an ADR, an alternative dispute resolution, as a way of ensuring compensation reached the victims’ families and those forced from their homes in shorter order than if they’d waited for any potential litigation to conclude.

    Represented by teams of lawyers, they agreed to meet before a senior judge who would determine the sum to be awarded and apportion their contributions.

    In May last year, it was announced that the ADR was to pay £150m to those affected. But how that figure was broken down was not revealed, apparently for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

    I’ve seen the percentage breakdown and it shows, top on 35.84 per cent is the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Next is Arconic on 22.84 per cent. Then, Rydon (builders), 10.84 per cent, Celetex (manufacturer of most of the insulation) at 9.84 per cent. The fire service’s share is 5.84 per cent, the same as the Government’s, Exova (fire testing) is 3.24 per cent while Whirlpool, which made the fridge where the fire originated and Gove’s target Kingspan are in for the smallest portions, 2.84 per cent each. The accuracy of the figures has been confirmed.

    The ‘Bindman Settlement’ - so-called after the leading London law firm where the nearly two years worth of detailed, behind-closed-doors discussions were held - was mediated by Lord Neuberger, the former president of the Supreme Court. In all, 900 people, including those who lost their relatives and those required to relocate, agreed to the out-of-court settlement. The ADR route was chosen after a claim was lodged at the High Court in 2021.

    Five of those involved in the Grenfell refurbishment, which is when the cladding was added, chose not to participate in the Bindman process: CEP architects, Studio E architects,  CS Stokes fire safety assessor, Harley Facades and Artelia project consultants.

    “Some firms stepped up and others didn’t,” said one of the Bindman signatories. “We took the view that you can’t be a proxy where responsibility is concerned.”

    The settlement does not have any bearing on the Grenfell Tower inquiry. Nor does it impact any potential criminal action. “Who paid what doesn’t necessarily reflect blame,” said the signatory.

    Nevertheless, in the absence of the official inquiry’s findings, it is the nearest we have to apportioning fault.

    Possibly, because the percentages are supposed to remain secret, Gove is confident he can lambast the companies, confident of not being challenged - and he can choose to ignore the larger role played by the public sector.

    That the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Government also happened to be led by Tories at the time of the tower’s refurbishment in 2016, is something else Gove may be keen not to dwell upon.

    The only thing that matters on the EU question

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 22/02/2016 - 12:25am in

    Michael Gove announced this weekend that he would campaign to leave the EU. To accompany this announcement, he wrote a 1,500 word article giving his reasons for his decisions. Whatever you think of Michael Gove, his piece is very well written. In two paragraphs he distills the key reason why I think most people should vote to … Continue reading The only thing that matters on the EU question