British Prime Minister David Cameron faced a televised grilling over the nature of his relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s press group yesterday at an inquiry that has turned into a slow-motion political disaster for the British leader.
Cameron’s day-long appearance at the Leveson Inquiry comes after months of embarrassing revelations on his friendships with people at the heart of Murdoch’s News Corp, including two former newspaper editors now facing criminal charges.
Cameron’s judgment has also come under attack over his backing for a minister accused of discreetly championing News Corp’s bid for full ownership of pay-TV firm BSkyB at a time when he was supposed to be an impartial overseer.
One of the themes dominating the inquiry is a view that generations of politicians cultivated powerful media figures, especially Murdoch, in a tacit agreement to look after each other’s interests.
“The idea of overt deals is nonsense. I also don’t believe in this theory that there was sort of a nod and a wink and some sort of covert agreement,” Cameron told the inquiry.
Cameron set up the inquiry into media standards himself last year after a phone-hacking scandal erupted at one of Murdoch’s British tabloids, but he has found himself increasingly under its glare.
His decision to agree to spend a whole working day at the inquiry, at a time when he is under intense pressure over an economic recession, the euro zone crisis and other pressing matters, is a measure of how much the fallout from the Murdoch saga is dogging his premiership.
He was well prepared and gave evidence fluently. He clasped his hands and frowned in concentration as he listened to questions from lawyer Robert Jay, and when speaking jabbed his hands left and right for emphasis.
It contrasted with his usually relaxed, spontaneous style, reflecting the pressure on the prime minister to appear statesmanlike and authoritative. “I think this relationship (between politicians and journalists) has been going wrong for, you know, it’s never been perfect. There have always been problems. You can point to examples of Churchill putting Beaverbrook as a minister,” Cameron said.
In what many will consider a flattering comparison, Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill controversially appointed press baron Lord Beaverbrook to his cabinet in 1940.
Cameron’s own dangerous liaisons include a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Murdoch and former executive at his British business, and the hiring of Andy Coulson, also a Murdoch ex-editor, as his trusted spokesman. He hired Coulson in 2007, a few months after he resigned as editor of the News of the World because one of the Sunday newspaper’s reporters was jailed for hacking into the phones of close aides of members of the royal family.
The revelation last year that News of the World reporters had hacked into many other phones over the years, including that of a murdered schoolgirl, prompted Murdoch to abruptly shut down the paper in July and set off the chain of events leading to Cameron’s appearance yesterday.
Cameron set up the inquiry to fend off accusations from the Labour opposition that he was fearful of holding the Murdoch press to account because he valued its support. But the decision to set up Leveson and give it the remit to question not only journalists, but policemen and politicians too, has come back to haunt Cameron.
The prime minister has been embarrassed by his association with the so-called “Chipping Norton” set, a high-powered social scene centred around the picturesque market town in Oxfordshire. Cameron, Brooks and Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth were among the high-flying friends with luxurious country homes in the area.
Brooks and her husband Charlie, an erstwhile horseriding partner of Cameron, have been charged with perverting the course of justice by allegedly hiding evidence from police investigating phone hacking. Coulson has been charged with perjury over evidence he gave during a case related to the phone-hacking affair.
Cameron is under fire for shielding Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative minister accused by Labour of being too helpful to News Corp while in charge of ruling on the company’s bid for BSkyB.