The Thick of It


Friday, July 22, 2011

Hacking: what did they know?

If the Murdochs thought their appearance before the parliamentary culture committee would have sated those waiting for their blood, they are wring. Today's revelations that James Murdoch knew about the payments to Gordon Taylor when he claimed otherwise is likely only the start of an unravelling of their defence.

What Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks said they knew abut hacking in public seems flimsy. What David Cameron knew about what Andy Coulson knew also isn't clear and poses questions about why the then prospective PM was so desperate to employ the ex- News of the World man when it was clear there were doubts about his suitability.

The Tories have tried to divert attention to Labour and Ed Miliband's press chief Tom Baldwin. There is no evidence that The Times acted improperly, or that Baldwin did. That he worked at a News International title isn't enough to sling mud. It is quite different to Andy Coulson who had already been forced to resign from his editorship of the News of the World because of phone hacking. The Tory attacks on Baldwin smack of desperation.

The questions about the Murdochs will continue and so will those to Cameron. Why wasn't Coulson properly vetted? Again, the suspicion that Cameron knew more than he is letting on still smoulders. Hacking has damaged Cameron's credibility permanently and has awakened Miliband from his slumber. The political sparring between the two should be different now. The Telegraph is no longer unconditionally supportive of Cameron. 

While it is clear that those at the top of News International, the police and government probably knew more about this than they have let on, who ends up paying the ultimate price for hacking is unclear. The police have paid a heavy price and that will only get worse as the investigation into bribes uncovers more corruption. The price for Cameron hasn't been set.

Cameron can only hope that what he gained in employing Coulson, the support of News International and a helping hand into government, is worth what he could lose when eventually the dirty laundry has all been aired in public. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cameron and Coulson: no smoke without fire?

As I wrote yesterday, if the top brass of the Metropolitan Police have resigned because of the "smoke" caused by association with News International staff, why is David Cameron excluded from this charge? Surely his association with Andy Coulson is worse than the police association with Neil Wallis? At the very least it requires the same level of scrutiny.

So far Cameron has rejected criticism that he could have avoided bringing himself and the centre of government into this scandal by not employing Coulson. When he employed Coulson he had already quit his job as News of the World editor following the jailing of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman for phone hacking in 2007. The Met Police can claim ignorance of Wallis' involvement as at that stage he hadn't been implicated, but they did the right thing and quit anyway after facing growing doubts about their impartiality.  

Given Paul Stephenson and Andy Yates' resignations the focus will inevitbalby shift closer to Cameron. At some point he is going to have to open himself up to scrutiny and answer these questions. I suspect that he was so in thrall with the power of News International when in opposition that he thought the benefit of employing Coulson outweighed the risk. 

The Sun's support for the Tories was much publicised in late 2009
The Tories had been out of power for (eventually) 13 years and were desperate to get back in. News International support was obviously deemed critical to that. The Sun's switch to the Tories after Gordon Brown's last conference speech was the denouement of that relationship. Pat McFadden at Progress gives a good account of how Labour had courted the same support in the 1990s, then seen as critical to gaining power.

Cameron got himself into power but at what price?

His traditional media support base at The Daily Telegraph is no longer supporting him. Their editorial today states: 

"Mr Cameron wants to draw a distinction between, on the one hand, his relationship with Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson, and on the other, the police's relationship with Mr Wallis. But this simply won't wash."

The New Statesman points out that Cameron "cannot afford to keep up his silence much longer". The drip, drip, drip of accusations will continue until Cameron puts them to bed. Nothing else is going to make them go away, only he can do that and should have put out the flames of innuendo quickly. By now he could have been in the recovery phase but instead he remains vulnerable and the "smoke" wafts around him as he continues to fan the flames.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The hacking web widens

David Cameron continues to be incredibly vulnerable on phone hacking. I still don't understand why he felt it necessary to appoint Andy Coulson after he'd been forced to quit the News of the World about hacking, well before we even knew the full extend of the nasty practice.

Cameron has still refused to cede ground that employing Coulson was a mistake. Some of the victims in the hacking scandal we may find to be unfortunate to have been implicated by association. Cameron had the choice whether to involve himself in this or not and chose to do so.

The problem is that the police have taken illegal bribes from corrupt newspapers. The prime minister has involved himself by association unnecessarily. As the resignations build up the focus shifts to others. The top of the police have gone and parts of News International are crumbling.

I having continued to meet with Coulson and to defend his appointment I can't see Cameron backing down now. All that does is ensure that an ever growing amount of mud will stick to him over hacking. When it didn't need to.

As the web widens the focus will shift to James Murdoch and Cameron. There will be so many more revelations before proper investigations even begin.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Brown bites back, Cameron retreats

An initial Parliamentary love in yesterday when all sides agreed to investigation and inquiries became partisan as dirty politics reared it's head again. Former PM Gordon Brown hit back at critics who claimed he should have done more when in power to investigate hacking.

Brown's searing attack on News International showed he feels emotion about what happened politically and to his family. Fair enough too. The speech showed that there is more to him than many people gave him credit for when PM. That he took the civil service advice not to investigate further perhaps shows that he wasn't always the decisive PM who would take a decision whatever anyone else said. We knew that anyway, but what is different is seeing a former leader show "regret" for something like this so quickly afterwards. They never do this. Can you imagine Blair or Thatcher doing the same?

Ed Miliband's requests for inquiries and investigations, together with the end of Murdoch's bid to buy back more of Sky have all been heeded. He has had a good couple of weeks.

David Cameron has accepted what has been thrown at him. Except when it involves Andy Coulson. He is still vulnerable here. He will continue to be so until the election as investigations and inquiries are going to take years to uncover what happened. The drip, drip, drip is likely to weaken and infuriate him as Labour and the rest of the media continue to question his judgement.

This is all Cameron's fault though as whether he knew what Coulson had really been up to he knew it was an avoidable risk in employing him and chose to take it. The price is getting dearer by the day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Will Miliband pay for his attacks on Murdoch?

He is playing a dangerous game, one that put paid to Neil Kinnock's chances of being PM almost 20 years ago. If Murdoch is fundamentally weakened then Miliband will get away with it. If his power remains he could find himself up against an insurmountable barrier of opposition from Murdoch.

Even before hackgate really kicked off in the last few weeks, is the Murdoch media empire as powerful as it once was? Politicians clearly think so. Given that Murdoch will continue to control a significant level of British media, across the newspaper titles, Sky News and BSkyB. He still matters whether we like it or not. Many of the British public might not like the hacking of murder victims' phones or the Queen's private details but I don't expect them to stop buying Murdoch products.

Miliband has grown during this crisis. He has been saying the right things and doing so with more gravitas. The media has also been keen to give him prominence. It is going to be interesting to see whether this translates into improved personal poll ratings for him as this impact has been lacking so far.

Miliband's future success depends largely on how strongly the government come down on media owners. Their presumption is to step away, which is being challenged by recent events. If the Tories revert to type as the brouhaha dies down it will strengthen their own position by strengthening Murdoch and knocking Miliband.

These are interesting times in British politics. The goalposts are shifting every time I look at the news. Will they shift enough to force the Tories to limit the size of a media market owned by one person? I'm not sure they will, which puts Miliband in a vulnerable position.

None of this will be worked out for some time. There are clearly more revelations to come, especially about how much David Cameron knew about Andy Coulson's involvement, about severe corruption in the police and about more people who were compromised by News International. Enquiries and police investigations will all take time too. Projecting forward I would not be surprised if this was still rumbling on in two years time or more . Just as we head towards another general election.

Will anybody care then who The Sun backs? Cameron will, Miliband has already shown he doesn't.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Cameron and Coulson: ticking time bomb

Peter Oborne has speculated this could be Cameron's black Wednesday. This story has a lot of legs left and will run. The longer it does the more Cameron's credibility will be damaged. Cameron has said that he is responsible personally for bringing Coulson into the centre of politics, therefore he has to take the blame.

Cameron won't quit so instead this issue will continue to be a distraction as Labour should continue to bring it up time and again. To paraphrase Oborne, this mud has stuck to Cameron and won't go away. Ever.

With friends like these... David Cameron’s judgment is under question (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

Thinking about hacking, my suspicion is that the police didn't open up or expose the full scale of the scandal because they had a vested interest in keeping it quiet. The focus to date has been on the newspaper and not on the police. I'm more worried about the police being corrupt than I am about journalists. The police are meant to be whiter than white as public guardians but have taken serious sums in bribes.

There is trouble ahead for the police and for David Cameron. I suspect he won't be able to safely defuse the ticking bomb.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Hacking: implications for Cameron

The ever more sickening News International phone hacking scandal is bringing several media regulatory and political issues to a head.

The government says it wants to reduce media regulation by abolishing or drastically cutting back Ofcom but at the same time is planning a raft of additional rules for advertising. This inconsistency shows that the government hasn't thought its proposals through, like much of the plans they have rowed back on in the face of opposition. Critically, can we really afford to cut back on regulation further when the phone hacking scandal shows us that self regulation of the press has failed so spectacularly?

The LSE's Damian Tambini suggests we need to go further. Many people will now agree. The only way big media owners follow is if there is insurmountable political and public pressure on them to accept this.

Labour can ratchet up the pressure on the Tories to announce a full public enquiry out of which a more robust regulatory regime needs to emergy. Labour has little to lose in attacking what has happened because it has almost no support at News International at present. I'd love to hear what Ed Miliband's press chief Tom Baldwain, ex of The Times, has to say about this. At the moment there is no evidence to suggest that hacking was happening organisation wide, rather than just at one NI title.

Six months ago when Andy Coulson quit, after a sustained drip feed of suggestins that he knew more than he admitted to about this, serious questions have been raised about David Cameron's judgement in appointing the News of the World's former editor.

If a journalist comes to the editor of a newspaper with a new, exclusive story the first question their boss will ask is "what is your evidence?" I can't believe that Coulson and Rebekah Brooks didn't know about this. How else will they have been able to explain the source of exclusive after exclusive to their legal team?

If we assume they did know then Cameron should have been aware too. He must have done some sort of due diligence on Coulson before appointing him and should have been aware that doing so opened him up to risks of association. If he didn't do his research, why not? Either way, his judgement has been shown to be poor.

I suspect Cameron was too desperate to gain a poll lead to worry about this. It is unlikely he was aware how sickeningly deep this scandal actually went. Coulson's tabloid friendly leadership helped to get the Tories into power, even though it wasn't enough to win them the election.

Cameron is deeply implicated in this. He can wriggle his way out by announcing a full public enquiry and putting a stop to a culture of self regulation, collusion and acceptance of dreadful malpractice.He might not because to do so would mean an admittance of the scale of the problem, that he is himself implicated in.