Saturday, July 09, 2011

Phone-hacking casualties pile up - but spare a thought for Gordon

First it was the News of the World, scrapped by its owner Rupert Murdoch in an attempted damage-limitation exercise amid allegations that it hacked into the voicemail messages of, among others, schoolgirl murder victim Milly Dowler, relatives of the 7/7 victims, the families of soldiers killed in Iraq, and - she had to get dragged in somewhere - Princess Diana's lawyer.

Then it was the turn of the Press Complaints Commission, facing the axe after a rare outbreak of consensus between Prime Minister David Cameron, who branded it "ineffective" and Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose favoured adjective was "toothless."

The casualties of the phone-hacking affair continue to mount up, with those still at risk including News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, and the company's increasingly forlorn hopes of taking over 100pc ownership of BSkyB.

But the big question at Westminster this weekend is whether those casualties will stay confined to the world of journalism and the media - or whether the scandal will eventually claim political scalps.

Phone-hacking has been branded rather too simplistically this week as journalism's equivalent of the MPs' expenses scandal, or even as the politicians' revenge on the trade for having uncovered their duck-island antics two summers ago.

It is nothing of the sort. This is far more than a crisis in British journalism, it is rather a crisis in British public life that goes right to the top of the tree.

No less a commentator than Peter Oborne this week described Mr Cameron as a "profoundly damaged figure" for having hired Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor arrested by police yesterday, and for his friendship with Ms Brooks.

"The series of disgusting revelations concerning his friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch’s News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation....He has made not one, but a long succession of chronic personal misjudgments," he wrote.

Is this overstating the case? Well, possibly - but if one thing is clear from the past week's events it is that this is a fast-changing story in which assumptions can be very quickly overturned.

Nobody would have predicted a week ago that the country's biggest selling newspaper, an iconic title with 168 years of history behind it, would be abruptly closed. But it has happened.

The most damning aspect of the affair for Mr Cameron is the fact that he was given details about Mr Coulson's possible involvement in phone-hacking before making him Downing Street director of communications after last year's election win.

In his article this week, Mr Oborne disclosed that Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who was in possession of many of the facts long before they could be published, delivered the warning to Mr Cameron's adviser Steve Hilton prior to the election.

It is inconceivable that Mr Hilton would not have passed on these concerns to Mr Cameron, but evidently the Prime Minister chose to ignore them.

Knowing what we now know of the allegations made against Mr Coulson, that does not just call into question the Prime Minister's judgement, it calls into question his commonsense.

Meanwhile, spare a thought this weekend for Gordon Brown, who wanted to hold the same kind of judicial inquiry into phone hacking that Mr Cameron has announced this week, but was blocked from doing so by the cabinet secretary, on the grounds that it would be too sensitive before the election.

Had he got his way, and the grisly facts tumbled out ahead of polling day, it is very likely that Mr Brown would still be Prime Minister today.

Mr Coulson, who was then Mr Cameron's chief spin doctor, would have had to resign, and the public's doubts about the Tory leader would have been dramatically reinforced.

It's been said plenty of times before, but in politics, as in journalism, timing really is everything.

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Anonymous said...

Hmm - slightly sceptical about this line. Gordon Brown was personally unpopular, and he was generally regarded as a dodgy character by the public. Had a full investigation along these lines been held at that time, it might well have been passed off by NI as lies intended as partisan smearing and Coulson been strengthened. That would not have helped Brown - it might indeed have destroyed him completely.

But let's assume for the moment you are right, and that Coulson would have been arrested earlier had Brown's enquiry been held. Cameron would have been damaged - perhaps so damaged he had to resign. Would that have saved Labour? I have my doubts. If we assume, for the moment, that both Hague and Osborne would have been implausible as successors to him given the then internal dynamics (1997-2001 and Yachtgate) that means that Michael Gove and Kenneth Clarke would have been the strong favourites to contest the leadership (this being before either of their problems in office, so they were still the dominant figures in the Shadow Cabinet).

Neither have the class-ridden baggage that Labour used to just about stall off an overall majority for the Tories, and they would still have had an economy run by a man with a fading grip on reality that was in a complete mess with record unemployment and peoples' incomes collapsing even as inflation soared. Are you willing to offer me good odds for a Labour victory under those circumstances? Because I wouldn't offer them to you.

Finally, this is a crisis, and an avoidable one, that is damaging Cameron badly. Yes, he made a bad error, although I think it unlikely he will be forced to resign as a result. However, it will hurt all parties, as they all have links to News International and what appears to have become an extra-legal (worded carefully) smear machine. The two words that are relevant here are Tom Baldwin. What happens if he is arrested over some of his actions of a few years back, some of which we may now find out more about? I'm genuinely interested to know what you think.

Personally, I think the Guardian article you clearly reference speaks more about Brown's lack of grip than anything else, but that's just my view and it may be rather coloured by the fact that thanks to him I've been out of work for three years.

Anonymous said...

2002-2008 Banks,MP's,Police & Media all went to hell,one of the most disastrous periods for the country.

G Eagle Esq said...

Dr Huw "... view may be rather coloured by the fact that thanks to him I've been out of work"

Some interesting observations ....

An Eagle wanteth not to intrude on the perceptive Doctor's autobiographical experiences

.... BUT perhaps the Doctor will forgive this Eagle's wondering if the his recent experiences have rather enlightened him about the vast damage done by Mr Brown's losing control of Government Expenditure ..... which always was going to end in tears for so many folk with the inevitable rises in unEmployment