WHEN David Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry into the media, he thought it would be a clever way of deflecting attention from the disgrace of his former head of communications, the ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, and his own lack of judgement in hiring him. He did this knowing full well that the inquiry could end up posing a serious threat to free speech (a crackdown on the minority of media players that were abusing the public’s trust was long-overdue, of course, but there were other ways of achieving this). For the Prime Minister, who was also under fire for his closeness to News Corp executives at the time, this was seemingly a price worth paying to protect his own position.
So it is no surprise that few commentators have any sympathy for Cameron’s predicament. His gamble has gone horribly wrong: the government suffered another appalling day of woe yesterday after James Murdoch released hundreds of pages of emails to the Leveson inquiry. As we report on p1, these claim that News Corp was regularly discussing its bid to take control of BSkyB with the culture secretary and his advisers, even though Jeremy Hunt was meant to be acting with quasi-judicial independence in deciding whether or not to approve the takeover. These emails are devastating and worth reading in full below; they also suggest that the culture secretary and his advisers were secretly reassuring the Murdochs that their bid would be approved. The communications were frequent and inappropriately friendly.
Hunt, of course, is fighting back, claiming that some of the emails – written by Murdoch’s lobbyist – are wrong. He should be allowed to put his side of the story before a decision is taken about his future; after all, the News Corp lobbyist had an incentive to exaggerate his influence and access. But Hunt has been badly damaged and unless he can comprehensively disprove the bulk of the claims would need to step down. Cameron will be desperate to avoid this: Hunt is his human shield. If he goes, then the Prime Minister himself would become the focus of those who believe the government has been hiding an attempt to help News Corp in return for political support.
Yet it could soon get even worse for the coalition: it is Rupert Murdoch’s turn to testify today, and he has become increasingly hostile to the coalition, as demonstrated by his interventions on Twitter. Yesterday’s emails apparently had to be released to Leveson; but the manner of their publication smacked of an angry family seeking revenge from a Prime Minister and political establishment which until recently were desperate to ingratiate themselves with the Murdochs but have now turned nasty.
All of this is yet another self-inflicted wound by the government. As it happens, I see no reason why News Corp shouldn’t be allowed to buy BSkyB. I don’t share the concerns of those who want to block the bid. But the process needs to be fair and professional. There is no way that the findings of a quasi-judicial inquiry should be passed on privately to key players. The whole system is shamefully broken. Once again, it fuels the suspicion that cronyism, rather than the rule of law, governs the relationship between business and the state.
The coalition’s strange, cack-handed relationship with the media – either far too close, or far too distant – is an extraordinary paradox. Cameron and his advisers are slaves to the school of media manipulation that began with Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Cameron is a former PR man himself. Yet they have fallen into every possible trap. It is truly baffling.