Saturday 16 December 2017

Rebekah and the No 10 bombshell facing Cameron

As whiff of scandal rises, politicians who courted News International have questions to answer


The scandal which has engulfed the media empire of Rupert Murdoch seems certain to rise and widen further to claim more casualties, not just of the tabloid gumshoe variety, but also, it seems certain, at the heart of the British establishment.

Methane from the pond life of News International, which also publishes newspapers here, has been swirling wickedly for months: this weekend it is touching upon two pillars of the establishment: the Metropolitan Police Force and the British government.

There is no telling where it might end.

But when the poisonous fog finally clears, there are many who suspect that a disturbing picture will emerge which will surely leave the masses reeling.

This account will have to deal with fear and no little weakness in the face of threats, intimidation, bribery and possibly even blackmail -- all seemingly in pursuit of a pervasive influence on a worldwide scale. For this is a scandal not just to do with the manner in which News International journalists go about their business; but, more disturbingly, it raises serious questions as to whether such methods have, in fact, debased democracy itself purely for commercial gain.

To some extent, the influence of Murdoch has been known for some time. Indeed, his newspapers have occasionally boasted of it: "It was the Sun wot won it", the tabloid screamed when Margaret Thatcher won another term.

His influence has been around that long, longer in fact, stretching back to 1969, when he bought the News of the World, the tabloid which was closed a fortnight ago in a bid to contain the galloping scandal.

A lesson learned, the New Labour of Tony Blair, somewhat shortsighted, assiduously courted the man that many have come to see as a modern-day Citizen Kane. The media domination of Murdoch, and his powerful minions, could seemingly make or break everybody, from the most obscure "celebrity" to the most mundane of football stars.

Nobody was untouchable, however, nobody and increasingly no tactic to "get the goods" on the rich and powerful, and the quietly influential, was too low.

David Cameron, the current prime minister, is in the teeth of rapidly unfolding events which may yet rank alongside the father and mother of all such scandals: yes, think Profumo, think even Watergate.

This weekend, of course, there are many on all sides who are desperately struggling to find a way to contain the fallout, and they may, or may not, be successful. Every effort has already been made to make it go away, by which time it was nearly always too late.

Tabloid journalists have fallen on their swords; some have been jailed, others seem set to follow, for the crime of hacking into the telephone messages of the rich and famous, the political and royal, but also, and most outrageously, the weakened and vulnerable too.

From the outset, however, it was always going to be a question of who knew what and when and how far up did it go -- and did it go all the way to the top?

As the methane rises, so has it wrapped itself around the more powerful within News International in the first instance, and also, potentially, its parent company, the worldwide conglomerate, News Corp.

Until last week, News Corp was seeking outright control of the cash cow that is BSkyB, the satellite TV company with a licence to print money.

The support of the government is needed.

Last week the phone-hacking scandal culminated in the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, the charming, flame-haired and ruthlessly ambitious chief executive of News International.

Public relations companies have been hired, full-page newspaper advertisements bought, the intention to apologise, to get back onside the people News International has always claimed to understand. It may all be too little, too late.

The relationship between David Cameron and News International seems closer, more personal than it was between Blair, then Brown, and NI -- although neither will New Labour emerge from these events purer than the driven snow.

Cameron's former spin doctor-in-chief, Andy Coulson, was in charge of the News of the World when some of its worst excesses were in practice; and the Prime Minister persisted with him even as the methane gathered.

Eventually, Coulson was forced to step down, but failure to promptly do so meant that, inevitably, the scandal would move on.

Cameron is also close to Brooks, so close, in fact, that they spent two days together at Christmas; three months later, the Prime Minister had Coulson back overnight at Chequers, where they had dinner as friends, for the Prime Minister to say "thank you", apparently.

At the very least, David Cameron has shown poor judgement. His encounters with News International figures, since he came to Number 10, certainly make for intriguing reading.

Within 24 hours of the Prime Minister taking office, Rupert Murdoch came to Downing Street in May 2010 for a "general discussion".

In fact, six of Cameron's first 10 meetings with media figures were with individuals from News International or at NI events: Murdoch; Brooks; Dominic Mohan, the editor of The Sun; the News International summer party; James Harding, editor of the Times and The Times CEO summit.

These meetings would not have been particularly unusual, but for the timing of other events, to wit, the BSkyB takeover.

After all, prime ministers everywhere feel the need to develop good relationships with influential media figures.

But News Corp was seeking to take ownership of BSkyB at the time, a takeover which would net the company over a billion a year.

This weekend, then, at a time when he was supposed to be navigating Britain through both domestic and global debt crises, David Cameron is desperately trying to distance himself from the News International he once so cravenly courted.

Rupert Murdoch has been around too long, however, and still has such over-arching influence, to let it slip away now at the whim of a mere prime minister; not now in his 80th year, as he may ponder his regrets and seems to seek a certain kind of atonement.

Sunday Independent

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