Monday 9 December 2019

Nicholas Leonard: Putrefying 'News Corpse' tainting politics and police

MPs at Westminster start their summer holidays tomorrow. But before they go, they have an end-of-term treat in store: the extraordinary spectacle of the world's most important media owner, Rupert Murdoch, being grilled by a Commons committee about the phone-hacking scandal which has engulfed him and his company.

The session is due to start at 2.30pm and, in theory, it should make compulsive viewing.

But the arrest yesterday of one of Murdoch's closest colleagues in Britain, Rebekah Brooks, has raised serious doubts about whether the MPs can get stuck into Murdoch and his son, James, without the risk of prejudicing the ongoing criminal investigations and the proposed judicial inquiry into the scandal.

The chairman of the committee, John Whittingdale, said yesterday that he hoped the MPs on it will remain calm: "I don't want us to be a lynch mob. On the other hand I don't want us to let them off without properly addressing the questions which we have."

Rupert Murdoch is reported to have been taking advice from an American public-relations expert on how to handle the grilling. He has already had the humiliating experience of apologising in person to the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by his journalists.

The speed at which Murdoch's empire is disintegrating around him has astonished even his most stringent critics at Westminster.

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, called it "News Corpse" last week and said yesterday: "I think it's undoubtedly true that when you give an individual or a small number of people a huge amount of power without proper accountability, things go wrong."

"Going wrong" hardly begins to describe the disasters which are now undermining Murdoch. Followers of the internet service Twitter are circulating quotes from Shakespeare which sum up his plight.

With its subplot of a divided and feuding Murdoch family, there are parallels with the tragedy of 'King Lear': "You see me here, you gods, a poor old man -- as full of grief as age, wretched in both."

It is not much consolation for Murdoch that the prime minister, David Cameron, is also finding the phone-hacking and police-corruption affair acutely embarrassing.

Cameron has been obliged to publish details of the extensive social and other connections he has carefully cultivated with Murdoch and other key figures in News International.

It is also now being claimed that his controversial and fatally flawed decision to make Andy Coulson, the former 'News of the World' editor, his official spindoctor was taken on the suggestion of Ms Brooks in order to have a permanent hotline between Downing Street and the Murdoch corporation.

The scandal is also undermining the police, following awkward revelations about the chummy contacts between Paul Stephenson, the head of the Metropolitan Police, and News Corporation.

Mr Stephenson last night resigned from his position "as a consequence of the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met's links with News International" and in particular as a result of his links to ex-'News of the World' executive Neil Wallis.

The home secretary, Theresa May, is distinctly unamused at the disclosures about these links and is due to make a statement today.

Mr Clegg yesterday highlighted the intense anxiety in the cabinet about the integrity of the police: "I think when the public starts losing faith in the police it is altogether more serious and we are really in trouble."

The ancient Romans knew the problem. They had a catchphrase, 'quis custodiet ipsos custodies?', meaning 'who will police the police?'

The key figures of the British establishment are so intertwined in so many ways that answering that question is far from easy.

The pressure on Mr Cameron over the Murdoch affair has brought some benefits for Mr Clegg, who is gaining some belated personal credibility after a very difficult period.

But by far the biggest beneficiary has been the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. He was on a train on Friday and found himself mobbed by fellow passengers who simply wanted to congratulate him and shake his hand.

His supporters say, rightly, that he has been far more upfront in his attacks on the power of the Murdoch media empire than his brother, David, would ever have dared to be.

If, as now seems likely, that empire is either broken up under new anti-monopoly laws or becomes politically irrelevant under new management, then he will gain further strength within his own party ranks.

In contrast, his predecessor, Gordon Brown, has done himself no favours after belatedly denouncing the tactics of the Murdoch newspapers even though, while prime minister, he was so keen to be on good terms with them that his wife, Sarah, even organised the 40th-birthday-party celebrations of Rebekah Brooks.

Irish Independent

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