Murdoch and the Big Lie

The Murdoch affair is demonstrating not only that Rupert and James are not 'fit and proper' people to run a media empire in Britain, but that David Cameron and George Osborne are ill-suited to running a government.

The malign political influence of the Murdochs poses a fundamental challenge to British democracy. This will not be dealt with by selling off the ownership of their papers, welcome though this might be, or the removal of their influence from BSkyB on the grounds (as I argued last year) that the Murdochs are not fit and proper people. The scandal has now clarified a far more breathtaking question: is Britain governed by a big lie?


James Murdoch and Prime Minister David Cameron

The extraordinary importance of the question can be illuminated by comparing it to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, another critical turning point in the collapsing legitimacy of the UK’s political order. Tony Blair willfully misled parliament and voters by claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened directly the interests of the UK. This was a contrived excuse for the war; known in everyday language as a lie (something the Americans admitted openly). While intensely damaging for our democracy, we were not, however, misled about the actual policy. To this day Blair, David Miliband, David Cameron et al say it was right to support the Americans at the time. Her Majesty’s Government was not pretending not to be doing what it was actually doing - in this sense it was honest. It was only lying about the justification for doing it.

We now face an altogether more profound falsehood: a government that flatly denies doing what it is doing. The Prime Minister told the BBC on its flagship Andrew Marr show that when it came to his government and the Murdochs, "It would be absolutely wrong for there to be any sort of deal and there wasn't... There was no grand deal".

This is a big lie. There was a deal. It was indeed wrong. We should not just be talking about the Murdochs, we should focus on the heart of the problem: the government.The Rubicon

The Murdochs and the Conservatives "shared" the code-name ‘Rubicon’ for the BSkyB bid that would have led to its complete takeover by NewsCorp. In an email of 11 January 2011 that would make a classicist shudder, James Murdoch’s Director of Public Affairs even reports a conversation with Jeremy Hunt’s office about “the Rubicon process”.

Fortunately the ‘process’ was wider than the Rubicon itself, a river south of Ravenna in northern Italy that Julius Caesar crossed with his legion to challenge the Roman Republic. It was his point of no return. He went on to become Dictator and although assassinated turned the Roman Republic into an Empire.

The British ‘Rubicon’ was not traversed. Had it been, the plotters within Westminster would have granted domination of the country’s media to the triumphant conqueror of American television and the Wall Street Journal. But what is the state of our ‘Rome’, now that we have, for the moment at least, escaped this fate? The great nineteenth century chronicler of The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot, saw it as a unique, ermine-clad, uncodified but nonetheless vigorous ‘republic’, more effective and equally as vital as the United States'. Can we return to such self-confidence now that Murdoch’s prurient legion of hackers, corrupt police, and fixers have been turned back? Will the vigour of our press be secure if its wealthiest defenders are an assortment of Oligarchs? We can celebrate that we are a freer, less intimidated country. Yet the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry could still be another 'soon-to-be-forgotten' report, its testimony merely video of the convulsions of a proud but dying system.

Last year, in a long post - After Murdoch - written fast as the Milly Dowler ‘firestorm’ created the Leveson Inquiry and ruined the BSkyB bid, and before Murdoch and Son had been summonsed to appear before the Parliamentary Select Committee, I asked how it was possible for Murdoch to have gained the power he did.

Now, in the wake of the three days of Murdoch testimony, one by James and two by Rupert, the publication of the Rubicon emails (see the pdf) between the office of the Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, and that of James Murdoch (which must surely lead to Hunt’s resignation before long), and after the new Report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, three specific issues can be clarified. How they are resolved will shape the future of British politics.

First: Was there an across-the-board deal or understanding, or what in a grave and thoughtful column Peter Oborne calls a “Grand Bargain”, between the two teams of the Conservative leadership of Cameron and Osborne and the Murdochs, Rupert and James?

Second: We know in detail that there was widespread criminal intrusion and the corruption of police and public officials (and maybe worse) by Murdoch staff and their agents, in News International’s News of the World, across the early years of this century. This was followed by a systematic cover-up by both News International and Scotland Yard after the Royal Editor of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, was sentenced to jail in January 2007. Did Rupert and James Murdoch know about or connive in these illegal activities? Were they holding the reins when they were happening and/or during the cover up?

Third: The cover up originally scapegoated Goodman. His editor, Andy Coulson, claimed Goodman was a "rogue reporter" acting alone and falsely claimed ignorance of hacking. But he resigned as it had taken place "on my watch". He was then hired by David Cameron and George Osborne to handle the Conservative party’s messaging in the run up to the 2010 election. Did Cameron and Osborne also participate in the cover up through ‘willful ignorance’ and by turning a blind eye to the evidence of the Murdochs’ acting illegally, as they developed their media strategy with Coulson and in many meetings with the Murdochs and their people?

The questions are linked. If ‘no’ is the answer to all of them there is only a minor problem, one that Leveson can deal with easily.

If the answer to the first is ‘yes’ and the second two ‘no’, then there was a worked out understanding or “grand deal” - but Cameron and Osborne entered into it with two basically decent if tough chaps, Murdoch and Murdoch, who were men of integrity unaware of and opposed to any illegality. Such a deal would have been wrong, arguably profoundly wrong, but perhaps that’s politics.

If, on the other hand, the answer to the first is ‘no’ and the second ‘yes’, then there was no grand deal, but the Murdochs are responsible for a criminal conspiracy. In this case we have a serious problem with media behavior but not the politicians. Cameron and Osborne may have been foolish or wrong in their own policy but this was not one developed with and on behalf of the Murdoch team.

But if the answer to all three questions is “yes” then there was an extensive agreement between the heads of our government and a criminal network, made significantly worse by Cameron and Osborne being complicit in the illegality because they were aware of it (or wilfully unaware). Which means the government needs to fall.

And the answer to all three questions is “yes”.

Here is how we know.

The Grand Understanding

Those who defend it as nothing unusual present the alliance between Cameron/Osborne and the Murdochs as the kind of thing politicians do. Part of the job of political leaders is to persuade proprietors that they are like-minded. Since Margaret Thatcher ensured Murdoch could acquire the Sunday Times and the Times and they sealed their joint approach in the Falklands War, his influence as a forger of opinion and breaker of the left has been unequaled. But the Thatcher/Murdoch relationship, while I abhor it, was originally one of two outsiders taking on an Establishment they both despised. At the start of the 80s they shared a still undefined project to turn the UK into an outpost of market fundamentalism. She then backed his ‘Falklands’, the move of his print works to Wapping, shattering Fleet Street’s craft unions and their Spanish practices. This gave Murdoch his new fortune and showed his genuine strength: an ability to identify and then boldly use ‘disruptive’ technology to change the finances of the game. He did the same with satellite television. In both cases, he claims, greater pluralism resulted. But his aim was and remains domination, thanks to being the market leader, and he used his British cash-flow to storm America, now the heart of his empire.

When Tony Blair took over the Labour Party he determined to try and prevent a Murdoch-style assault upon him of the kind that had damaged Neil Kinnock in the 1992 election. But Labour under him and Gordon Brown was clearly heading for victory over a hapless Conservative administration that had already earned the scorn of the Sun. Blair assured Murdoch of his hostility to trade unions and closed shops and his ‘toughness’, but these were views he had arrived at already, and he was allowed to proclaim his patriotism to Sun readers.

Of course this too was an understanding between them and an appalling one. The Murdochs proclaim the fearless investigative qualities of their papers and TV stations in exposing hypocrisy and wrongdoing. They could easily have researched the likelihood of WMD in Iraq, yet didn’t. Funny that. However - again without wishing to defend Blair - while it was a business relationship even if Murdoch denies this, Blair wasn’t getting himself elected by agreeing to support the expansion of Murdoch’s business and media presence into a quasi monopoly.

A decade later Cameron declared his ambition to be the ‘heir to Blair’. His political mastermind, George Osborne, is so enthralled by the quality of Blair’s cynicism that, according to Steve Richards, he even listens on his iPod to Blair's reading the audio version of his memoirs. Perhaps naively, the two of them thought they were playing the same game as their New Labour master. But by now Murdoch was no longer a hungry outsider as he was with Thatcher, or the forger of domestic opinion through newspapers as he arguably still was in the 1990s. In 2009 the influence of his papers was in decline but his role as a US player was now formidable and the rise of BSkyB was making him a potential monopoly player in British pay-TV. Furthermore, he was planning a pharaoh style handover to his son James, so a further thirty years of expansion of Murdoch’s power was on the agenda. The terms of trade were thus quite different. Whereas in 1979 Thatcher and Murdoch pitched themselves against the vested interests, in 2010 the Murdochs were the great vested interest - seeking to secure complete domination.

In the face of such a behemoth, a true conservative would seek to foster countervailing powers. But after January 2007 when the News of the World’s Clive Goodman was jailed for hacking royal phones, the young and eager would-be heirs to Blair got down to talking with team Murdoch about its strategy to re-shape the UK’s media environment: to castrate Ofcom and cut back on media regulation, to radically diminish the BBC, to permit NewsCorp’s complete acquisition of BSkyB, and provide the Murdochs with a massively enhanced cross-media base in the UK. This agreement involved the institutional reconfiguration of the UK’s entire media space in favour of a company that by then all politicians knew hacked celebrities, intimidated MPs and corrupted the police.

It ‘goes without saying’ that the young Tory leaders could only help the Murdochs achieve these objectives by winning the next election for which they needed positive support and negative coverage of the incumbent Gordon Brown. They had no need to explain to News International how this should be done - it was supremely experienced in such arts. So what else would team Murdoch want to talk to the Tory leaders about, other than the NewsCorp agenda? To ensure it was understood and to share and probe possible regulatory and other cultural and institutional problems and blockages and how these might best be overcome? And then to ensure they held to their agreement by locking them in with their friendship and hospitality?

And talk and meet they did. Here is a list provided by the Telegraph of known meetings between team Cameron and team Murdoch for the year after May 2010 when the new Government was formed, not including phone calls and text messages. In most months hardly a week goes by without communication. And as the Telegraph’s Damian Thompson demonstrates in an analysis of the meetings, “George Osborne was up to his neck in this”. Ian Katz in the Guardian makes an even more telling analysis of relations before the election, helped by tabulated records (see this pdf) provided to Leveson.

“We learn that Murdoch père met Cameron no fewer than 15 times while leader of the opposition, including four times in a two-month spell before the election. His son managed a meagre 12 meetings over the same period, one of them weeks before Cameron announced Ofcom was "an unaccountable bureaucracy" that would soon "cease to exist".”

It also turns out that Jeremy Hunt made a five day visit to the US in 2009 and, according to the Daily Mail, met with “representatives of News Corp including the Wall Street Journal, Fox Five and WNET”. It was then that the Murdochs decided to bid for total control of BSkyB. Six days after that James Murdoch was in London to inform David Cameron that they would switch the Sun to support the Tories. Hunt says it was a fact-finding trip about “local television” and he can’t to the “best of his recollection” remember if BSkyB was discussed. But he was personally close to Cameron. What the Murdochs wanted to be sure about was whether or not there existed a general willingness to ‘work together’.

On 30 September the Sun switched sides, timing it to take the wind out of the Labour Conference,

If elected, Cameron must use the same energy and determination with which he reinvigorated the Tory Party to breathe new life into Britain.

That means genuine, radical change to encourage self-improvers, not wasting time on internal party wrangling or pandering to the forces of political correctness. It also means an honesty and transparency of Government that we have not seen for years.

We are still a great people and, put to the test, will respond to the challenges we face.

The Sun believes — and prays — that the Conservative leadership can put the great back into Great Britain.

They were praying for something altogether more tangible as well: BSkyB.

The day after Cameron entered No 10 Murdoch went to see him, and within a month NewsCorp formally opened its bid for the whole of BSkyB. In the Leveson Inquiry, the questions Robert Jay QC put to the Murdochs about the timing, and their attempt to say 'well, you know, it was only so many billions, this month or that month is just a detail', were a delight.

Of course there was not a “deal” in the narrow sense of a written contract. Cameron chose this word carefully in his denial to the BBC, to make it seem that this was the charge. It was a partnership without a marriage certificate, but all the more intense because of that, between people who decided to get into bed with each other and help each other obtain their interests at the expense of public life in Britain.

One person who followed all this closely with the experience to understand precisely what was going on was Cameron’s immediate predecessor Gordon Brown. In an impassioned speech to the Commons on 13 July 2011 he related his own mistreatment by News International and his own frustration at not being able to call a judicial inquiry into what he described as the “criminal-media nexus”. Naturally, the speech contains special pleading, and he had to admit he courted Murdoch (although not as much has he actually did). But there is a genuinely striking passage when Brown observes, with the acute eye of a defeated opponent, the evolution of Tory policy under Cameron:

I have compiled for my own benefit a note of all the big policy matters affecting the media that arose in my time as Prime Minister. That note also demonstrates in detail the strange coincidence of how News International and the then Conservative Opposition came to share almost exactly the same media policy. It was so close that it was often expressed in almost exactly the same words. On the future of the licence fee, on BBC online, on the right of the public to see free of charge the maximum possible number of national sporting events, on the future of the BBC’s commercial arm, and on the integrity of Ofcom, we stood up for what we believed to be the public interest, but that was made difficult when the Opposition invariably reclassified the public interest as the News International interest. It is for the commission of inquiry to examine not just the promises of the then Opposition, but the many early decisions of this Government on these matters.

If the Leveson Inquiry wants to be remembered it will need to adjudicate on this “strange coincidence” and test the claim of “almost exactly the same words”.

With, it seems, over a hundred meetings between Cameron and Osborne and Rupert and James and the networks of those close to them, no person of sound judgment could conclude anything other than that there was indeed a grand collaboration worked out before the election by the Murdochs and Cameron and Osborne and then implemented after it: putting the British state at the service of one of the world’s largest media conglomerates.

Or perhaps we might borrow a phrase from James Murdoch himself, as a response to those who doubt there was a grand bargain. A cool report in the Economist informs its readers about the working nature of the relationship between the Conservative government and the Murdochs and their expectations - and very revealing it is too. After Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt took on his ‘quasi-judicial’ role to decide on the BSkyB bid, his legal team advised him against personally meeting News International to talk about it. When James learns of this he replies “‘You must be fucking joking,’ before insisting that he will send a text message”.

Did they know it was criminal?

However, if we are to believe the protestations of the leading principles, while they met and negotiated across 2008,9 & 10, they were all good, clean boys. They may have used rough language, but the Murdochs themselves were quite unaware of extensive wrongdoing in News International and naively oblivious of the corruption of the police and an ongoing cover-up undertaken by their executives.

At a number of points in his evidence before Leveson, Rupert Murdoch refers to “the game”. The decision that he and his advisors took when the scandal broke was to play the “game” of insisting that he is a fit and proper, utterly legal person, shocked at the revelations of industrial scale hacking and criminality. Indeed, so sure is he of his integrity that he has appointed himself to cleanse News International, throwing its reporters, managers, and even his lifelong comrade Les Hinton, over the cliff as he pursues the state of purification which was always how he would want things to be run. 

Asked, then, how such a cover up could have happened in the first place under him, his strategy is twofold: first to insist on how relatively insignificant the UK operation was within his whole empire, so that he, the cleaner, could easily miss the dirty details. Second, to argue that the cover-up itself was carried out by others.

It's incredible. But who of those involved is going to gainsay it? One of Murdoch’s policies is to pay off those he has wronged but have had the courage to challenge him. Enough money acquires their acquiescence, while the alternative, their blasting apart his dirty dealing, is all too likely to implicate them as well. They face a choice of they and their families being ruined or a more secure and comfortable Omertà.

This was in effect the problem that the Media and Culture Select Committee faced and which has since been replayed before Leveson. The Murdoch gambit is to play the honest boss shocked at evidence of illegality and now determined to clean it out. How can we know for sure that the opposite is the case and he and his son are responsible for the cover up and thus permissive of the crimes?

It is established fact that from the moment Goodman was convicted in January 2007 and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee started its inquiry, a News International cover up took place whose line was that Goodman was a “rogue reporter”. This intensified through 2007 and 2008 as the solicitor Mark Lewis helped those like Gordon Taylor pursue other cases of criminal activity. In May 2008 pay-offs were needed and the “for Neville” email was discussed as it confirmed in writing that illegal practices were systemic and not confined to mavericks. There was an argument about whether James Murdoch saw the “for Neville” email.  He told the Committee that he had not, and then when it was clear it had been sent to him, that he had not read it. There was a note that it was agreed that James would “wait for the silk’s view” but he claims he and his father never read the ‘view’. This was an internal opinion commission by News International by Michael Silverleaf QC, who reported on 3 June 2008 that they should settle the Gordon Taylor case because “there is a powerful case that there is (or was) a culture of illegal information access”. Whoops! Better not read that then.

Thus two years later News International was still pursuing what it called “aggressive defence” after the Select Committee found it “inconceivable” that no one knew about phone hacking apart from Goodman. Indeed, its then Editor Colin Myler had the News of the World proclaim on 28 February 2010,

We’ll take no lessons in standards from MPs—nor from the self-serving pygmies who run the circulation-challenged Guardian.

But we promise this: As long as we have the power to fight, you can rely on us to keep doing what we do best—revealing the misdeeds that influential people are desperate to hide.

And we’ll let YOU be our judge and jury

Quite. It’s called taking the fight to the enemy, it’s a rough game etc.  And among those who had overseen aggressive denial since 2007 were Tom Crone, the legal director of the News of the World, Myler himself and Les Hinton, Murdoch’s right-hand man running News International.

According to the Murdoch version these experienced members of his own staff actively connived to cover up what was going on from… Rupert Murdoch himself! Not to mention young James. Apparently they worked tirelessly (for the cover-up was extensive and keeping the police sweet expensive) from the inside of an autocratic and personalised global media corporation to frustrate the interests and wishes of its all-powerful proprietor and his son and heir.

Their hard work was indeed exposed: the Select Committee found unanimously that they had given false and misleading evidence and thus misled Parliament. Their exposure (because it was on the record) allows the Rupert Murdoch defence to assert that as soon as he found out they were dismissed and he implemented a clean-up of the cover-up. In this way he is able to accuse his own men, who were carrying out the cover up on his behalf, of conspiring against him, to prevent honest Rupert from learning the truth! The perpetrator-in-chief solemnly proclaims how sad he is to have become a victim.

It nearly worked. His employees did such a good job on behalf of the Murdochs that when it came to the family the paper trail dried up. It could not be demonstrated, for example, that they had misled the Select Committee. That’s why it was so important and justified for the Labour and Lib Dem members of the Committee to insist on the inclusion of the paragraph setting out that Murdoch father and son are “not fit” to run an influential company - if such an illegal shambles took place on their watch without them knowing.

But we can be confident right from the start of the criminality and then the cover up, Rupert was, in his own canny and brutal way, holding the reins.

For the single most seminal article to appear so far on the Murdoch way of doing business blows away Rupert’s claim that when he discovers wrongdoing he stamps it out as a man of integrity and a cleanser of cover-ups. It won’t figure in the Leveson Inquiry as it is outside its remit. It is by David Carr and appeared in the New York Times on 17 July 2011.

Carr reports that another lucrative US subsidiary of Murdoch’s, NewsCorp, News America Marketing, was run by Paul V. Carlucci. In 2009 it paid out $30 million dollars after being accused of nothing less than – yes, hacking. It settled when a whistle blower from inside the Murdoch company gave evidence against it. Shortly after New America Marketing paid out $125 million to Insignia Systems for “uncompetitive behaviour”. It then paid a jaw-dropping $500 million – yes, that is 500 not 50 – to settle a lawsuit brought by Valassis Communications.

If Rupert Murdoch’s claim here in the UK with respect to News of the World is true, and he roots out wrongdoers whenever he comes across them, then Carlucci must have been for the chop. But what punishment did Murdoch in fact dish out to Mr. Carlucci? He promoted him to become publisher of the New York Post. David Carr reports,

Mr. Carlucci, as it happens, became the publisher of The New York Post in 2005 and continues to serve as head of News America, which doesn’t exactly square with Mr. Murdoch’s recently stated desire to “absolutely establish our integrity in the eyes of the public.” A representative for the News Corporation did not respond to a request for comment.

More recently, the systemic nature of Murdoch’s modus operandi was further confirmed by a BBC Panorama investigation into how his company hacked the smart cards of its rival ITV, to help ruin their potential pay-TV business. This is reinforced by claims in the Australian Financial Review that the same activity was attempted in the antipodes – it also published emails which “spoke of ‘burning’ the people they targeted. They called them ‘flammable’”.

Rupert Murdoch claims that he was ignorant of the hacking and illegality, didn’t read his own newspaper that ran stories clearly based on phone tapping and was unaware of the subsequent and expensive cover up. Indeed he was its victim. To call this false runs the risk of giving lying a bad name - for buried within a lie is the truth that is being denied or falsified. Murdoch is above mere deceit and operates at a different level. He is playing “the game”.

In a glorious moment of the second day of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony, Lord Justice Leveson drew out the proprietor on the question of blackmail. Was threatening a person with public exposure unless they cooperated with the News of the World blackmail, as a Judge found, not journalism?

“It’s a common thing in life, way beyond journalism, for people to say, ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch my back” was Rupert’s reply. Robert Jay QC neatly followed up, “You said it was a common thing in life… but it’s interesting that you say that’s no part of the implied deal in your relations with politicians over 30 years, Mr Murdoch. Is that right?” Rupert’s answer was revealing. “I don’t ask any politician to scratch my back…”, and then he added, “That’s a nice twist, but no, I’m not falling for it.” Unable to restrain himself from complimenting his opponent on adriot move, Rupert showed that for him it was a game.

This also, by the way, confirms the ridiculousness of Murdoch’s denial of any grand bargain. His team and the young Tory leaders were back-to-back before the election, in and out of each other’s rooms, parties and phones, and did they itch.

But morally it is more revealing about the Murdoch attitude towards right and wrong. You put yourself into a position to destroy someone’s reputation and then you say, ‘Hey, I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’, and you think this is justified as normal, human behaviour? Crimes were committed by his staff. He did not need to know the details, the culture of the organisation that permitted them was directly his creation, so his backscratch response shows.

This was the company that Murdoch created. It wasn’t all he did. Relatively speaking The Times was doubtless an honest enough newspaper except when it came to the Iraq war. Sky News has drawn on an English tradition of independent mindedness in its reporters and has expanded a plurality in UK that was threatened by the attitudes of the BBC in my experience.

Nonetheless, the Murdochs perpetrated an often-criminal regime to help drive the expansion of NewsCorp and its subsidiaries. Any government whose duty is to secure and protect its citizens would necessarily seek to ensure that NewsCorp’s power is limited, checked by regulation and competition. Especially because it is a media company with vast resources whose Fox television channels in the US have blatantly propagated dishonesty and corrupted American public life. Nothing should risk the same thing happening here.

The Final Question

To recap. First, Cameron, Osborne and the Murdochs together embraced a relationship of mutual benefit irrespective of the interests of the British public and democracy. Second, the Murdochs knew what went on in the News of the World and approved of and supported the cover up and the pay-offs. Therefore the Prime Minister and Chancellor entered into an agreement with the bosses of a criminal organisation.

The third question is this: granted that Cameron and Osborne knew that the Murdochs were “tough” (just as did Thatcher and later Blair) did they also understand they had become criminal? After Cameron won the Tory party leadership in 2006, perhaps only the Guardian was trying to ring the alarm bell over the courtship. But after Goodman was jailed for hacking and Coulson resigned were these not danger signals? Osborne is said to have then recruited Coulson and Cameron agreed to give him “a second chance” as he put it. But really, did both of them believe the “rogue reporter” line?

It does not matter if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt because an identifiable moment in the run-up to the 2010 election removes all uncertainty. To explain this begs readers’ patience, but it is a defining moment. The fullest account so far is the gripping book subtitled ‘News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain’, Dial M for Murdoch. It's by Tom Watson MP, the hero of the Select Committee and Martin Hickman of the Independent. (The hint in the title is heavy-handed - see openDemocracy's review of the book by the author of The Murdoch Archipelago, Bruce Page, who agrees there is a comparison with KGB but denies that NewsCorp assassinates, and I agree with him).

The story seems to be this, drawn from Dial M for Murdoch (pp. 107-10, 167-181). After Cameron had put Andy Coulson in charge of his press and media operation in 2007, it emerged that as Editor of News of the World Coulson had employed Jonathan Rees.

Back in 1989 Rees was a partner with Daniel Morgan running a private detective agency. Apparently Morgan was concerned about Rees’ connections to corrupt police. After having a drink with Rees in a pub Morgan was murdered. Rees denied he was responsible. He went on to run a lucrative business, obtaining stories. The police were suspicious and began to bug him. They recorded him saying “No one pays like the News of the World” and, more important, discovered that he was planning to plant cocaine on someone to fit her up. After he did so, he was charged with perverting the course of justice and given a seven-year sentence in 2000. Released in 2005 he was promptly re-employed by… none other than Andy Coulson at the News of the World.

Meanwhile the police were convinced that he had murdered Morgan. They charged him and three others and put him on trial in 2008. By this time Coulson was working for Cameron in his office as leader of the opposition. The case eventually collapsed in March 2011 after the police spent £50 million, as the defence undid incompetent paperwork stretching back 20 years. But between 2008 and 2011, although it had emerged that Coulson had employed and used Rees, he could not be named because of the trial. Soon after the case collapsed Tom Watson learned that Rees, “had – using a variety of methods including blagging, corruption and burglary – illegally acquired personal data about royalty, leading politicians and other senior members of the establishment on behalf of News of the World and other red-top newspapers”.

The really important aspect of this story is that a shudder went through the political class in late 2009-2010 as they learned about Coulson re-employing a known convict of Rees’ calibre who had been charged with murder. This was the moment when it became clear to our official opinion formers in all parties, newspapers and departments, that what was going on at News International respected no bounds and went well past the hacking of celebrities and minor royals. The story could not be told in public for risk of contempt of court while the murder trial dragged on. But something could and should be done. It was evident that Cameron was likely to become Prime Minister. He had to be warned: employing Coulson was no longer a matter of giving a “second chance” to a man who denied knowledge of phone hacking. Coulson had used a known heavy-duty bad guy with a criminal record to benefit from further extensive illegality and must not be allowed into No 10. 

There is something marvellously English about it. A line of people who loathed Cameron felt it was their absolute duty to warn him for the good of the country, even if it would strengthen his claim on office should he indeed shed Coulson on winning the election.

Ian Katz, the deputy editor of the Guardian, spoke to Cameron’s Chief of Staff Ed Llewellyn to pass on the warning. Paddy Ashdown talked to Nick Clegg. Peter Oborne who warmly supported Cameron’s election went as public as he could and a month before the election told the man he wanted to be Prime Minister that he must on no account employ Coulson in Downing Street or he would be embracing a figure who “was presiding over what can only be described as a flourishing criminal concern”. He added that “a person was implicated who could not be named for legal reasons”. The next day, here in OurKingdom in The Heart of the Matter I advised “anyone interested in British politics” to read the column “twice” (and it is still well worth reading today). It was especially important, coming from a journalist of conservative opinion who not only liked Cameron and wanted everyone to vote for him but also had played cricket with him. In other words this was a clear example of unequivocal but honourable and friendly advice, partisan only in the sense that the author was – or thought he was – on the same side as the Conservative leader.

All the warnings were ignored. Cameron took Coulson into No 10. The next day, Murdoch came to visit him in Downing Street, taking the back door route. He noted with satisfaction, when he spoke to the Leveson Inquiry, that present at his meeting with the new Prime Minister was Andy Coulson.

On the 13 July 2011, at the Prime Ministers Questions before the Milly Dowler debate, Ed Miliband raised the issue  three times. The reader can skip the (slightly abbreviated) exchange but I think it is important to follow Cameron’s own words as he ducks and weaves. He knew very well what was at stake. Note how, while Cameron denies that the information given to his office by “figures from the Guardian” was passed on to him, he does not deny that the information itself was. Instead he says that the information was not new! 

Edward Miliband:… Can I… ask him to clear up one specific issue? It has now been confirmed that his chief of staff and his director of strategy were given specific information before the general election by The Guardian. The information showed that Andy Coulson, while editing the News of the World, had hired Jonathan Rees, a man jailed for seven years for a criminal conspiracy and who had made payments to police on behalf of the News of the World. Can the Prime Minister tell us what happened to that significant information that was given to his chief of staff?

The Prime Minister: I would like to answer this, if I may, Mr Speaker, in full, and I do need to give a very full answer. First, all these questions relate to the fact that I hired a tabloid editor. I did so on the basis of assurances he gave me that he did not know about the phone hacking and was not involved in criminality. He gave those self-same assurances to the police, to a Select Committee of this House and under oath to a court of law. If it turns out he lied, it will not just be that he should not have been in government; it will be that he should be prosecuted. But I do believe that we must stick to the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty.

Now, let me deal directly with the information given to my office by figures from The Guardian in February last year. First, this information was not passed on to me, but let me be clear that this was not some secret stash of information; almost all of it was published in February 2010, at the same time my office was approached. It contained no allegations directly linking Andy Coulson to illegal behaviour and it did not shed any further light on the issue of phone hacking, so it was not drawn to my attention by my office…. Indeed, if this information is so significant, why have I been asked not one question about it at a press conference or in this House? The reason is that it did not add anything to the assurances that I was given….

Edward Miliband: The Prime Minister has just made a very important admission. He has admitted that his chief of staff was given information before the general election that Andy Coulson had hired a man who had been jailed for seven years for a criminal conspiracy and who made payments to the police on behalf of the News of the World. This evidence casts serious doubt on Mr Coulson’s assurances that the phone hacking over which he resigned was an isolated example of illegal activity. The Prime Minister says that his chief of staff did not pass on this very serious information. Can he now tell us what action he proposes to take against his chief of staff?

The Prime Minister: I have given, I think, the fullest possible answer I could to the right hon. Gentleman. Let me just say this. He can stand there and ask questions about Andy Coulson. I can stand here and ask questions about Tom Baldwin. He can ask questions about my private office. I can ask questions about Damian McBride. But do you know what, Mr Speaker, I think the public and the victims of this appalling scandal want us to rise above this and deal with the problems that this country faces.

Edward Miliband: He just doesn’t get it, Mr Speaker. I say this to the Prime Minister. He was warned by the Deputy Prime Minister about hiring Andy Coulson. He was warned by Lord Ashdown about hiring Andy Coulson. He has now admitted in the House of Commons today that his chief of staff was given complete evidence which contradicted Andy Coulson’s previous account….

The Prime Minister: I am afraid, Mr Speaker, that the person who is not getting it is the Leader of the Opposition. What the public want us to do is address this firestorm. They want us to sort out bad practices at the media. They want us to fix the corruption in the police. They want a proper public inquiry. And they are entitled to ask, when these problems went on for so long, for so many years, what was it that happened in the last decade? When was the police investigation that did not work? Where was the public inquiry over the last 10 years? We have now got a full-on police investigation that will see proper prosecutions and, I hope, proper convictions, and we will have a public inquiry run by a judge to get to the bottom of this issue. That is the leadership I am determined to provide.

Thus did the Prime Minister attempt to spread the merde: what has been going on for the last ten years! The Prime Minister’s evasions, proclamations of innocence and reliance on someone else to undertake due process, are too clever to be have been dreamt up by a gullible idiot genuinely ignorant of Coulson’s and News International’s criminality. They are the replies of a consummate operator.

Connoisseurs will appreciate his use of the ‘I’m a good guy gambit’ often deployed by Tony Blair. This turns an issue of judgement into one of sincerity. Why should Cameron not have taken Coulson at his word? The point, however, is that new evidence of Coulson’s activities emerged after he was first hired. All the incoming Prime Minister needed to do was ring up MI5 and ask their independent view, given the seriousness of the charges. As it is, a point made repeatedly by Ian Katz, Coulson was not given security clearance after he went into No 10, unlike his predecessors. They could hardly be clearer evidence of wilful ignorance.

Read between the lines of their own words: Cameron and Osborne were aware that the Murdoch clan took their liberty with the law itself. The British government, under their leadership, developed a grand understanding with bosses of a media empire they knew engaged in criminal activities.

All attention is on Murdoch and whether he will be driven from BSkyB. But the position of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister is now far more important. They have to go. Labour will want them both to stay until the election, ethically crippled, unable to escape years of official reports and trials constantly reminding the electorate of their morally compromised role, while austerity does its worst. Will the Conservative Party go along with this?

Three final points

Rupert Murdoch is still in play and he is not giving up on the game. He now holds considerable negative or black power. He may not be able to re-grow his hair, but like Samson he can bring down the temple. All he and James need to do is to suddenly recall the different aspects of the bargain and Cameron and Osborne’s position becomes untenable. And should Ofcom decide that the Murdochs are not ‘fit and proper’ people to control BSkyB, they have no reason not to let the world know, as Dan Hind, the editor of a new Painite pamphlet has said, that the young toffs ate out of their hands. Blackmail? Not at all, it’s what happens when the scratching stops.

Pernicious, lowering and shameful, it places the Leveson Inquiry into a difficult position. It is supposed to consider the ethics of the press, not rule on government behaviour. Yet expectations have been aroused, even more so thanks to Cameron trying to palm off Jeremy Hunt’s future as Secretary of State onto the Lord Justice. Yet it is not his place to become a substitute for an honest political process. It would be more than understandable if he joins the company of such noble official inquirers Lords Hutton, Butler and Scott. Who recalls the Scott Inquiry? Exactly. But for ages it hypnotised British politics in the early 1990s. Margaret Thatcher, aided by Geoffrey Howe and Alan Clark, had sold arms to Saddam Hussein after he had gassed from the air his own Kurdish citizens of Halabja. They attempted to cover up that they had done so. The evidence Scott uncovered was definitive but in the end he could not pass a judgment of consequence.

Today, how can Leveson pass judgment on the nature of the understandings reached by Rupert’s Rebecca when she went horse riding with David Cameron beyond the reach of judicial standards of proof? Without the clear evidence of the metaphorical 'smoking gun' to make a verdict of a conspiracy against the public interest simply unavoidable, it becomes his judgment-call to force the Prime Minister and Chancellor from office, for selling out the country with their utterly inappropriate relationships with team Murdoch. It is a power he’ll naturally resile from using. Then everyone will be disappointed. And the system will roll on.

At least Murdoch won’t be part of it. This is an extraordinary, last minute reprieve. It shows there is some life and integrity in the British system. In this case, thanks in particular to the Guardian and the Milly Dowler moment, when Nick Davies and Amelia Hill revealed that the Murdoch machine had hacked the phone of a murdered girl. There were others two. Notably, across the Atlantic a series of exposés in Vanity Fair; campaigns like Hackoff in Britain supported by petitions organised by 38 Degrees in the UK and Avaaz globally. But I think Coulson’s connection to Rees was also part of it. Everyone in parliament and the press and their tearooms and bars knew. It was difficult to go public when the murder trial was on, then it collapsed. The plaintive queue of honorable men asking that Coulson not to be brought into Number 10 may have been pigmies in the eyes of News International but they stood for something.

What they felt was that when Coulson was brought into government a Murdoch style enforcer, who had kept working relationships with a dangerous convicted criminal, was at the heart of the British state with the Prime Minister’s assent.

Finally, in January 2011, Coulson was obliged to resign because, they said, he had become part of the story and thus made it more difficult for the BSkyB bid to succeed. Then, just before the bid was due to be completed, it seems that a police officer leaked the Dowler information to Amelia Hill. I’d like to think it was done because the source knew how serious a threat we faced and that this would be a deadly grenade. Without the extraordinary persistence of Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian Editor, the source would probably not have informed: a reliable context is needed for whistle blowing to be effective. But in other circumstances, while damaging, the story would not have had the same political consequences. Murdoch would have found the usual allies defending his presence as a business genius. But a shocking thought still hovered in the minds of Britain’s politicians, civil servants, editors and journalists. They know no moral limits and we had let them into Downing Street, this has to stop.

It wasn’t only a populist revulsion, as the political elite was already ashamed by what it had been weak enough to permit. The combination of the disbelief and anger of the public and the alarm of the governing class meant the ‘firestorm’ was irresistible, Leveson followed, the Select Committee reconvened, and the Murdochs are humbled.

But the bigger issue remains, symbolised by Coulson being allowed into 10 Downing Street. It is one thing to kow-tow, to cultivate, to grant some concessions to (to seek not to make an enemy of) a man who controls 40 per cent of the press. This may be  revolting but it is – or was – political reality in Britain. It is quite another to agree to reshape the all-important media environment of our democracy for the advantage of a player whose coverage is not only notorious for bias and the dishonourable destruction of people's lives but who is also known to bribe the police and break the law. This was the Rubicon that Cameron and Osborne plotted with Murdoch and Son to cross. While the Murdochs may be confounded, their agents remain in place in 10 and 11 Downing Street. They have shown themselves as people not fit and proper to run a government.

David Elstein responded to this arguing there was intimacy but not conspiracy and Anthony replied in a single exchange and David then took the argument further saying that Murdoch's rise was thanks to a vacuum at the heart of British media.


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About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy