The chase in West End Green

IT’S not been the best week for Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq as Channel 4 News continue to chase her on links with the Bangladesh government. In terms of our local journalism, people have been debating this week as to a) whether the questions asked by chief correspondent Alex Thomson could’ve been asked by the local papers a long time ago, b) what does it mean for the MP and c) what do we think of the chase in West End Green.

On Tulip, it has hardly been concealed in the local press that she is the niece of the Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina, whose regime’s record on human rights is well documented. The opposite: When she made her maiden speech in parliament, they were stood together on the front page of the CNJ. Over the years, we have also asked her opinions on Bangladesh – and the photo with Putin – and it’s been up to readers to decide whether the ‘judge me on my own record, not my aunt’s’ line holds weight.

As an aside, it’s been suggested before that some (certainly not all) Labour members saw all of this as intriguing factor when selecting her as their candidate, rather than a negative. A little like the way, deep down, they had previously enjoyed being represented by a two-time Oscar winner.

I’ve found a real difference of opinion on the connection: some followers of our local politics simply fail to believe that she has no interest – or influence – in Bangladeshi politics, maybe because they remember the pictures of street parties in Bangladesh when she was elected to the House of Commons. Others say it is too simplistic to think she can intervene on individual cases like Ahmad bin Quasem with a single phone call, which at the very least would risk setting a precedent that led to hundreds lining up at her door asking for her help, regardless of constituency boundaries.

Interestingly, the wider interest among some of the MP’s critics around Hampstead is not really about how much influence she has in Bangladesh, but the influence supporters of her aunt may have over here. The story goes that Sheikh Hasina benefits from having a fairly close relative sitting in the Commons, somehow providing greater legitimacy on the world stage when human rights campaigners are biting at her regime. For a long time, there’s also been a backstage grievance among Tulip’s opponents that she seems to benefit from a rush of manpower at election time, which they suspect, rightly or wrongly, is partly pooled from Awami League followers. There are Conservatives who will even tell you that some of their activists on the doorstep were warned off helping any candidate that might defeat Tulip – not by the MP herself, but by enthusiastic fans of Sheikh Hasina. This is almost laughed off as a conspiracy theory by Tulipistas.

As it happens – and perhaps to Tulip and her aides’ surprise – there was no need for such backup on the day of the June general election, because Labour Party members from all over the south east seemed to descend on Hampstead and Kilburn to help cement Tulip’s lead in the constituency. The constituency was flooded but Labour troops on the ground were not Awami League soldiers, a lot were college kids enthused by Jeremy Corbyn.

What does the whole saga mean for the MP? She has a quite impressive knack of landing on her feet, as we saw during her ascent from campaigner to councillor to MP, perfectly outmaneovring all of the other local Labour politicians who had dreamed of succeeding Glenda Jackson or Frank Dobson. They thought she was lightweight, but even in tough moments, like the threat of library closures she was able to come up with a narrative of saving them.

Ultimately, one of the best things that happened to her on the way up was losing the council leadership vote to Sarah Hayward by one vote. It locked Sarah up to deal with the weekly bulletin of local government cuts, and Tulip was free to plan her friend-to-all succession of Glenda with the decent PR of being able to say virtually half the council group thought she would be a better leader anyway.

She’s tougher than some of her cheesier soundbites and the selfies with celebs suggest, but on her aunt, it’s surprising she has not had a go-to media strategy to implement whenever she is ambushed on the issue. This is a subject that will come up again and again in different forms. You can’t see it threatening her position as an MP, but even some of her supporters suggest the aura of these stories could cause hurdles to further promotion. Remember, the Sunday Times once tipped as a future leader of the party.

Finally, on the doorstep tactics by Channel 4 News. It reminded me of the time we found out where Boris Johnson was talking at a public event (unconnected to anything we were covering) and ran after him in a bid to finally get answers to questions about his mayoral fire service cuts. We’ve chased cabinet ministers and mayors around conference halls for many years. But we only do it if our formal requests for answers and interviews are ignored. Mr Johnson’s office had blanked us. You may think that our questions on fire station closures were irrelevant, and you might think Mr Thomson’s line of questioning was spurious, but journalists have to have the right to put them to our elected politicians. The viewers/readers then decide if the right questions are being asked.

Of course this doesn’t mean physical intimidation is allowed and Tulip’s team are adamant that she was right to call the police. That’s her call, not mine, I wasn’t there, and it’s significant that she also says she can’t get into specifics of what actually happened. That means some people are already calling it an overreaction to being sprung by surprise. That’s what we really need to know to make a judgement, what actually are the police investigating. While she says she can’t speak about it, Channel 4 News put out an ‘unedited rush’ which shows some push and shove – largely between one of Tulip’s staff and a cameraman – but nothing you could really imagine standing up in a court of law as common assault. A lot of people reading the stories this week – views are included in some emails whizzing around Labour members in her constituency – wanted her to come out and be explicit, and to say if anything else happened off camera.

Tulip’s supporters wait for her to emerge from the election count in June

In the end, the footage of trying to prevent an interview always seems to look worse than what would happen if you just sat down and gave one. Hands over cameras, footage of angry aides, wagging fingers makes a journalist – and no doubt, their audience – think they are onto something, rather than thinking: Oh I’ve got this all wrong.

In hindsight – and of course it’s always easier after the event –  Tulip and her team may regret not just saying something along the lines of: I’m sorry, today’s event is all about Nazanin, but I’ll be happy to answer your questions in an interview in the studio next week. Such stalling is the last thing I’d want to hear as a reporter and it’s cynical, but this would have bought her some time needed for a considered answer, which would have included all of the doubts her supporters are now raising about the  ‘one call to auntie’ theory. I can only assume the get-down in West End Green will only make Channel 4 News want to investigate more.

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