When Downing Street came to the Leveson Inquiry

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 17/06/2012
Into its 23rd week, the inquiry has been unfolding like a gripping TV soap opera. The process of getting to the bottom of just how cosy British politicians had become with journalists has been path breaking.
NUPUR BASU in London
It’s been a week of nerves for the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.  First, embarrassing newspaper reports revealed a well-kept domestic secret. The Prime Minister had forgotten his eight-year- old daughter, Nancy, and left her behind in a country pub after lunch with friends and family. The incident took place a couple of months back.  Cameron and his wife, Samantha, realised their mistake only when they returned to No 10, Downing Street.
But the careless-Papa- episode paled in comparison to the litmus test of public morality that was to follow the same week. How had a Prime Minister of a country conducted business with what is described in British public imagination now as the ‘gutter press’?
On 14 June 2012 the British Prime Minister had to appear before the Leveson Inquiry taking place in the Royal Courts of Justice since 14 November 2011 . Cameron was grilled the entire day for seven hours by QC Robert Jay, who has become a household name with his incisive questioning of the most powerful in the land. Right through his deposition, Jay referred to the Prime Minister as ‘Mr Cameron’ and, not, ‘Mr Prime Minister’.
The Leveson inquiry has seen three former British Prime Ministers – John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - and now a serving Prime Minister testify before it. The inquiry was set up following the outcry against the Rupert Murdoch owned New International’s phone hacking scandal that broke last year.  On 6 July 2011 Cameron had announced in the Parliament that Lord Justice Leveson would head this inquiry that would further investigate the phone hacking scandals that culminated in the Milly Dowler case (a murdered teenager whose phone was hacked into by the News of the World) and allegations of illicit payments to police by the Murdoch press.
Closely followed by the British public, the politicians and the media, the public inquiry into its 23rd week has been unfolding like a gripping TV soap opera. The process of getting to the bottom of just how cosy British politicians had become with journalists in the last two decades- from 1991 to 2011- in the run- up to the phone hacking scandal, has been path breaking.
This week it was Cameron’s turn to come under Judge Leveson’s radar .The British Prime Minister conceded that he had 1404 meetings with top editors and journalists since 2005 to get his and his party’s views across. The QC was quick to point out that it amounted to 26 meetings a month. Cameron said he had to work very hard to bring back the Conservative publications , that had gone over to New Labour, back in their favour. “The Pendulum had swung the other way- we had to bring it back” he said
But what had Cameron blushing was the public scrutiny of just how cosy he had been with the Murdoch empire , specially Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO News International , who has now been charged along with her husband and facing trial in British courts for the phone hacking scandal.  The tell-tale moment was a gushing e-mail message to Cameron from Brooks the day before the Conservative party convention in 1999  : “I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we are definitely in this together. Speech of your life ? Yes, he Cam !”  A journalist on Channel 4 described this as a betrayal of the public  :  “One had thought that  ‘we are all in this together’ was addressed to the people , not to media barons !”
Cameron was closely questioned not only on his relationship with Brooks but his meetings with Rupert Murdoch (whom he had met 10 times and his son, James Murdoch (he had met him 15 times). He was repeatedly questioned on how he could justify the appointment of the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as the minister to oversee the GBP 8 billion BSkyB bid . Hunt had been clearly in favour of Murdoch’s bid and was therefore not an objective player. At the Leveson inquiry Cameron denied having seen a crucial ‘memo’ from Hunt on this.
Jeremy Hunt’s deposition before the Leveson Inquiry earlier this month had taken the inquiry proceedings to another level. Hundreds of text messages of a Cabinet Minister were up for public viewing. It was through this that it was revealed that a lobbyist on behalf of the Murdoch empire, Fred Michel had sent 542 test messages to Hunt’s special adviser , Mr Smith (who has since lost his job), 35 messages to Hunt himself and 140 phone calls. “As a company they did want everything as a speed of light” Hunt admitted.
The fact that Jeremy Hunt is still in office and Cameron continues to protect him has become a political thorn for their coalition partner in government, the Liberal Democrats . The Lib Dems stayed away from a vote in Parliament on the Hunt issue one day before Cameron appeared before the inquiry.  In a documentary on a British channel titled “Murdoch, Cameron & the 8 Biilion Deal” Lib Dem Treasury spokesperson, Lord Oakeshott said after what had emerged in the Leveson inquiry, “no self respecting minister could possibly carry on after that”. The British Sky Broadcasting bid was dropped by the Murdochs on 14 July 2011 following the furore and is on hold at the moment.
Again on the controversial appointment of former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson , as his chief press aide, , Cameron’s answers were at best evasive . Coulson was arrested on charges of perjury and is out on bail now.
In the course of the questioning though, the Prime Minister admitted: “We are here because of the truly dreadful things that happened...it was a truly cathartic moment and we have seen the closeness between politicians and journalists leads to these risks and this does public harm. In the 24 -hour news cycle, issues are thrown at you hour by hour – it is hopeless..you have to keep responding...politicians have to get out of this cycle.”
In the UK there is a popular story that people like to tell on just how powerful the Murdoch empire had got in determining the future of political parties. They recall the infamous Sun cover on polling day in 1992 with a grim headline :  “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain , please switch off the lights”.  John Major was re-elected and Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party lost. The poll predictions had been that of a hung Parliament with Labour wielding some advantage.
Five years later the Murdoch ‘pendulum’ had swung in completely the other direction. John Major appearing before the Leveson commission revealed some more Murdoch moments ‘under oath’. The former Tory PM said that at dinner meeting he and his wife attended with Rupert Murdoch and his family in 1997 just three months prior to the elections , Murdoch asked the British Prime Minister to change his government’s Europe policy or he would drop his support of the Tories. The rest, John Major said, was history. The Tories lost the election to Labour. Major said he had refused to come out of the European Union as Murdoch had ordered him to do . “I don’t think it is the role of the Prime Minister to court the media” Major told the Leveson inquiry. Murdoch, earlier on oath, had said he had never demanded anything from a British Prime Minister in return for favourable coverage.
Like John Major, former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown also told the Leveson inquiry that he had not telephoned Murdoch threatening to wage war on his publications because News International had withdrawn support to his government. Murdoch in his deposition had accused Brown of making such a call. An emotional Brown also refuted claims made by Rebekah Brooks that he and his wife had given their consent to put their son Frazer’s medical condition (cystic fibrosis) on Sun’s cover. “No parent in this land can do such a thing” an emotional Brown told Judge Leveson.
Labour Leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, in a sense encapsulated the dilemma of the politician  in his deposition before the inquiry this week. He said politicians were too slow in following the phone hacking and other wrong doings. There was a sense of fear, worry and anxiety on speaking out.“ I was too slow to speak out and when I finally did and demanded that Rebekah Brooks should go, I knew I was crossing the Rubicon- News International would see this as a war. But indeed I should have said in April what I said in July.” Miliband observed humility. He also conceded that he had, on one occasion, when face to face with Murdoch, ended up discussing world politics rather than bring up the scandals surrounding his newspapers. “At the heart of democracy lies transparency- it is our job to speak out without fear or favour – it is not to muzzle the press – that is the most important lesson I have learnt from this”.
Judge Leveson’s comment followed : “ I always give the example of ‘speed limit’. It is not the fault of the person who is speeding, but the police who don’t do their job”.
Miliband has set the cat among the pigeons by stating that News International’s 34 per cent market share should be cut down to 20 per cent, thereby reducing their influence and arrogance.
On 14 November when Justice Leveson had opened the inquiries he had said “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
The question of regulation is being discussed but so far there is no clear consensus on this. Most politicians still believe that the media should be self regulated. Cross- media ownership is also within the terms of reference of the Leveson inquiry as is the issue of culture and ethics in the press. The expectations from the Mother of all Inquiries is growing like a ‘mushroom cloud’ according to  Justice Leveson. The fallout on the media and politicians may yet unravel in the coming months.
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