openDemocracyUK

Cameron on Murdoch: how his language reveals the crisis in British democracy

British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a press conference on the scandal of Murdoch's tabloid hacking and suborning the police. In it he produced a new definition of democracy. What does it signify?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
11 July 2011

There is something distinctly, or perhaps it is more accurate to say indistinctly, strange about the Prime Minister. He appears to be forceful and straightforward but it is rarely clear whether he is fully aware of the agenda behind his remarks - think of the Big Society. What is he really saying? And does he really mean it?

The triple scandal of how Murdoch's papers do their work, the suborning of the police and Cameron's own intimate relationship with the News International network, forced him to call a press conference on Thursday last week to announce a judge-led inquiry.

He opened it by reading a prepared statement on the relationship between political leaders and powerful newspaper proprietors. He underlined the seriousness of the situation by comparing it to the MPs expenses scandal of 2009. Cameron understands, this is part of his skill, the imense ramifications of the Murdochgate crisis and that it reveals something systemic, as Gerry Hassan argues. His technique, which he has learnt from Blair, is to be as forthright as possible verbally and then, using the political space this creates, to limit the damage as much as possible. This was the ploy he adopted on Thursday. But it is a sign of how deep the crisis goes that Cameron's language and argument floundered even though they were prepared. Here is one extraordinary passage that suggests the pressures on a cool Prime Minister when the system is imploding, followed by my practical criticism of it, line by line, of how he is "dealing" with it.

Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers…
…we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated.

It’s a bit like MPs’ expenses.
The people in power knew things weren’t right.
But they didn’t do enough quickly enough – until the full mess of the situation was revealed.
Now, when the scandal hits and the truth is plain for everyone to see...
...there are two choices.
You can down-play it and deny the problem is deep – or you can accept the seriousness of the situation and deal with it.

I want to deal with it.
These inquiries give us a chance for a fresh start and I want us to take it.
Look, it’s healthy that politicians and journalists speak to each other; know each other.
Democracy is government by explanation and we need the media to explain what we’re trying to do.
But this is a wake-up call.
Over the decades, on the watch of both Labour leaders and Conservative leaders, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems.

Well: it’s on my watch that the music has stopped.
And I’m saying, loud and clear – things have got to change.
The relationship needs to be different in the future.
I’m not going to pretend that there’s some nirvana of two separate worlds, relating to each other on the basis of total transparency and ethical perfection.

That's not real life.
But we can do a hell of a lot better than we’ve done so far.
Because as this scandal shows, while it’s vital that a free press can tell truth to power…
…it is equally important that those in power can tell truth to the press.

Let's have a go at what this "fresh start" might mean.

Look, it’s healthy that politicians and journalists speak to each other; know each other.

This defends the club of the political class. "Know each other" could mean trying to judge character and motive, but it might also mean enjoying Christmas dinners, trips to South Africa, appreciating vested interests.

Democracy is government by explanation.

This is a new definition of democracy. Our Prime Minister is a true original, an Aristotle amongst politicians! But hold on, didn't Queen Elizabeth I explain herself? Don't dictators? Isn't democracy something to do with the government of the people, rather than "explanation" by leaders? Cameron was taught constitutional theory by Vernon Bogdanor, perhaps Professor Bogdanor should be considering his position.

...and we need the media to explain what we’re trying to do.

Flattr this

Be the change we're writing about. Support this article with Flattr. All proceeds are divided 50/50 between the author and openDemocracy

Well, no. Our political leaders need to explain themselves. I agree that often the media makes it hard for politicians to get their explanations across, and it should give them more space to be heard. But the media's role is to test and probe as well as give a fair hearing. It is distinctly NOT the role of the media to do the explanation of politicians' policy for them. That would be to act as their propagandists.

But this is a wake-up call.

An original phrase indeed. But who is to wake up whom, to what?

Over the decades, on the watch of both Labour leaders and Conservative leaders, politicians and the press have spent time courting support, not confronting the problems.

He means courting each other. Is this the problem they have not been confronting? It is apparently "healthy" that they should "get to know" each other, but courtship! There is a line that must not be crossed. I wonder what other problems there might be as a result which have not been confronted? Tax avoidance perhaps? Being truthful? This the Prime Minister did not attempt to explain.

Well: it’s on my watch that the music has stopped.

Another astonishingly original use of language. But note, the music has now stopped. Yet,

And I’m saying, loud and clear – things have got to change.

This moves us from the present tense to the future tense. Indeed,

The relationship needs to be different in the future.

Has the music stopped? Or does it "need" to be different? The Prime Minister is "loud and clear": the relationship "needs to be different in the future". That sounds like the same old music to me.

I’m not going to pretend that there’s some nirvana of two separate worlds, relating to each other on the basis of total transparency and ethical perfection.

Or: What I am saying loud and clear is, ethical perfection - forget it! Indeed, ethical perfection and total transparency are not even going to be the ideal "basis" for how press and politicians relate. In other words, ethical imperfection and murkiness will be our starting point. They have to be because we don't expect Rupert's new paper, if he survives, to be called Nirvana on Sunday either. Because, well because

That's not real life.

Real, non-nirvana life is, for example, the Prime Minister flying out to meet Mr Murdoch on his yacht after his friend Chancellor Osborne has met him along with an Russian aluminum oligarch and... oh well, you know.

But we can do a hell of a lot better than we’ve done so far.

This sentence is clear and, at last, incontrovertible.

Because, as this scandal shows, while it’s vital that a free press can tell truth to power…
…it is equally important that those in power can tell truth to the press.

So that's it. Our democracy is newly defined and now we have to create a system of government that permits those in highest office, with all the might and majesty of the British state, to be able to tell truth to the press!

After yet another profound crisis, the stopping of the music on his watch, the wake up call, the loud and clear saying, and the resting of democracy on explanation, our Prime Minister concludes it is important "that those in power can tell truth to the press"? Might it possibly be that those in power would be interested in telling the truth to the public?

How can the scandal be that those in power have not been telling the truth to the press when, all too clearly, the press already know the nature of what is going on?

If democracy is government by explanation then our democracy is in deep trouble.

Who's getting rich from COVID-19?

Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

Hear from:

Dawn Butler Labour MP for Brent Central and member of the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

Peter Smith Procurement expert and author of 'Bad Buying: How Organisations Waste Billions through Failures, Frauds and F*ck-ups'

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData