Here is my update after a day of Jeremy Hunt's evidence:
In the short run the government will get away with it, and the Jubilee will proceed without the Prime Minister being forced to re-shuffle the Cabinet. To understand why - and why this deepens the scandal - you need to understand the distinction I try to make in this article.
In his brilliant daily roundup, the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan writes that after the day's events and the press response: "The legacy for Mr Cameron though is fairly toxic. No direct evidence of the so-called grand deal has been found, and yet all the evidence so far suggests both sides shared a common, cosy purpose". This is a perfect summary of how the political class sees things. It tries to get us all to search out a tree when it itself is the forest. The cosy, common purpose was the grand deal. This is what sharing a "common purpose" with the Murdochs means.
Back among the trees Downing Street justifies its supporting Hunt because he took "regulators' advice throughout the process [and] he took a series of decisions which were contrary to News Corp's interests". Behind this is Hunt's argument to Leveson that he saw his role as "defending British democracy", no less, by making sure that "plurality" was preserved while his well know view that the Murdoch bid for all BSkyB was beneficial in no way effected his making sure plurality was protected. He therefore acted properly. Ah yes.
In the narrow but not unimportant sense this seems to be correct and is the strength on which his position rests. There is no point in the opponents of Murdoch pretending otherwise. There are also, however, two significant though narrow weaknesses in Hunt's position and with it that of the Prime Minister.
They have abandoned the principle that for justice to be done it must be percieved to be done. Hunt's preference for the bid was so blatent, even texting James Murdoch to calm his anxiety while being in a quasi-judicial role, that he was disqualified both before being given the power and he disqualified himself by the way he behaved after he exercised it, in terms of perception - even if his actual decision making process was justified.
Second, his failure to warn his Special Advisor, Adam Smith, that he had to behave differently once representing a Minister acting in a quaisi-judicial was egregious, and not just regrettable as he admitted. If Smith did wrong so too did Hunt. That Hunt may actually have carried out his own role properly does not excuse his failure to control Smith. This failure should manifestly have been sent to the Prime Minister's adviser on the Ministerial Code, Sir Alex Allan. If he has a shred of gumption in his spinal cord, Alex Allan should resign rather than suffer the humiliation of being totally otiose. To continue to draw a salary now is a form of corruption.
Not incidently, we can also see here a clear example of David Cameron's slight-of-hand. When in 2010 he was warned by many not to bring his Director fo Communications Andy Coulson into Downing Street because it had emerged that Coulson had employed the services of a heavy-duty criminal whom the police had also charged with murder, Cameron pretended that these were just like the earlier warnings about Coulson's engagement in phone hacking. Similarly, this time he has declared that he will not refer Hunt to his Advisor on ministerial conduct, because Hunt's conduct of the actual bid was not faulty. But the point at issue is his breaching the Ministerial Code in terms of his responsibility for his Special Advisor!
However, all this is small change compared to the defining issue. Hunt told the Inquiry that he was determined to proceed towards the bid in a way that was "impartial, unbiased and decided on the basis of the evidence in front of me". But anyone looking at what had happened in News International in an impartial, unbiased way, on the basis of the evidence, could see that Rupert and James Murdoch were responsible for a criminal conspiracy. The defence of British democracy meant, and still means, ensuring father and son have as little to do with this country as possible, unless it is behind bars.
George Osborne texted Hunt, "I hope you like our solution" meaning that Hunt himself was the solution to the fears that Hunt expressed that the Murdoch bid might fail. the Prime Minister has now endorsed this judgement, that Hunt was the solution. The three of them, Cameron, Osborne and Hunt were the problem, as they worked to open the gates of the Kingdom to James Murdoch.
28 May 2012
It was a great week for denials. Last Monday Peter Mandelson, the Mephistopheles of New Labour, assured the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the British press and politics that there was no “Faustian pact”. Well, he would say that wouldn't he. And admire his devilishly tuned wording,
I reject the view that, under either Mr. Blair or Mr. Brown, some sort of Faustian pact was forged between the government and Rupert Murdoch involving commercial concessions to him in return for support from his newspapers.
Since when were Satanic deals bogged down in the mere details of “commercial concessions”? It is the spirit of the thing that matters, for they concern the sale of souls.
The more important denial was David Cameron's. Our current Prime Minister went on ITV Friday morning to defend his friend Jeremy Hunt, the Cultural Secretary, and insist that Jeremy was indeed the right man to have overseen the decision about approving the Murdochs’ bid to acquire all of BSkyB. The fact that Jeremy had strongly argued for the bid in a private memo to Cameron before being given this authority in no way undermined his capacity to act impartially afterwards, David insisted.
There is an old rule that justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done. The Prime Minister would have none of it. Jeremy was quite able to turn his mind into a blank slate untouched by his passionate personal commitment and political interest in backing the Murdoch bid. (As Stuart Weir points out, no one would permit such elasticity in local government.) The Prime Minister went on to raise the defining issue, going out of his way to repeat what he already had gone out of his way to emphasise when on the BBC in April, when he insisted there was no “deal”. That’s what “people want to know”, he said then. Apparently they still do,
Some people are saying there was some great conspiracy between me and Rupert Murdoch to do some big deal to back them in return for support. Rupert Murdoch has said that's not true, James Murdoch has said that's not true, I have said that's not true. There was no great conspiracy. (My emphasis)
Just because we were in and out of each other’s backdoors, some people think I was in some great conspiracy over bootlegging with Al Capone. Al Capone has said that’s not true. Al Capone Junior has said that’s not true. And I have said that’s not true. Yes, hand on heart, I, like others, did a bit too much cosying up to them in the Speakeasy. But that does not mean there was a deal. And by the way Dr. Faustus was not involved.
The “hand on heart” bit about "cosying up" are David Cameron’s words to the House of Commons.
But if he admits the cosying up was overdone, we can ask what was its purpose in the first place?
Cameron’s denials are a gambit to turn the claims against him into a caricature, so that their deflation moves opinion in his favour. But no one in the main print papers has alleged the supposed caricature, that there was "some great conspiracy" between Cameron and Co and the Murdochs; although Peter Oborne has asked the question, Private Eye assumes the obvious and Tom Watson and Martin Hickman in their book detail the Murdoch machine’s intimidation, criminality and political influence. However, I am definitely one of the “some people” and I have already set out the case as forensically as possible based on the information to hand.
It is perfectly reasonable to think there was a “great conspiracy” meaning a Faustian selling of souls. Now it has become clearer what this meant thanks to Hunt’s memo. He wrote to Cameron:
what James Murdoch wants to do is to repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world's first multi-platform media operator, available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad.
Isn't this what all media companies have to do ultimately? And if so, we must be very careful that any attempt to block it is done on genuine plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors.
The UK has the chance to lead the way ... but if we block it our media sector will suffer for years. In the end I am sure sensible controls with be put into any merger to ensure that there is plurality but I think it would be totally wrong to cave in to the Mark Thompson/Channel 4/Guardian line that this represents a substantial change of control given that we all know Sky is controlled by News Corp now anyway.
A great amount of heat has been generated by the fact that this memo disqualifies Hunt from adjudicating impartially between the Murdochs and the 'BBC/Channel4/the Guardian' axis of evil - because he was commited in advance to the former.
Rather than fixating on this issue we should look at the argument he sets out. It is the government’s case at its best. First, it demonstrates a clear and succinct grasp of the core long-term strategy of James Murdoch and more important supports it. The aim is to forge an integrated multi-media global platform. This is the purpose of 'Operation Rubicon ', the NewsCorp codename for the acquisition of all of BSkyB: to integrate it with all of News International’s other UK and then US publishing and European satellite services, over a period of years.
In a strong post written immediately after the memo was released, Dan Sabbagh of the Guardian shows that the opponents of the bid had argued exactly this. But their fears about the intent behind the BSkyB acquisition were dismissed - and even laughed away by James Murdoch. He was dissimulating and they called it right.
But even though it is shocking that the Prime Minister and his close colleagues had such a clear, sharp understanding of the Murdoch strategy but were dishonest enough to go along with its public denial, the policy Hunt sets out politically was legal and coherent and even reasonable within the given framework of law and regulation. It is a point David Elstein makes in our exchange, there was nothing in our existing legal structures that could have prevented the BSkyB takeover taking place on the lines Hunt argued for and indeed it was approved.
(That is why unless we do something about our multi-media policy NewsCorp will rise again or, more likely perhaps, its fearsome competitor Google with its even more humongous cash flow will get to rule the roost - and the Tories are already deep into its London operation.)
But the very fact that there was nothing wrong legally with the James Murdoch bid as advocated by Hunt points to the greater wrong that was taking place: the conspiracy against British democracy such as it is.
There are two obvious democratic problems with the Cameron / Hunt approach. It was covert and it embraced James Murdoch as a torchbearer of Conservative media politicy, and therefore a commanding aspect of their own politics for the coming decades.
James Murdoch set out his view of British public life and the need for it to be whipped into shape by market fundamentalism in his 2009 MacTaggart Lecture for all to see, his concluding words being:
There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society.
The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.
This is why I say the deal was about the selling of souls, in this case the soul of British government.
Remember, from 30 August to 4 September 2009 Hunt, a friend of Cameron, was in the US talking to various branches of NewsCorp about "local television" at the same time NewsCorp took the decision in principle to bid for the totality of BSkyB and Rebekah Brooks was made head of News International in the UK. Six days later James Murdoch flew to London to dine with Cameron and tell him that they would switch the Sun to support him in the election.
What was being agreed between the parties was joint support for a political philosophy that committed the UK to the sway of corporate interests. Incompatible with left and liberal politics it also undermines a core principle of traditional conservatism, which sees the reliable guarantee of patriotism and independence in the law, liberty and institutions such a parliament and even the BBC - and never only in the profit motive.
Fair enough, you might say. Who these days gives a toss for traditional conservative values. You might think what Cameron was doing profoundly wrong, but that’s politics. He was only doing what he and his colleagues did with the NHS, where he regularly denies that he is selling off its revenues to corporate health care providers when this is what he is doing. The real problem is surely that Labour’s opposition is half-hearted, tactical and crippled by its bad-faith after its own years of getting into bed with corporate power, while the Lib Dems are broken by being in the Coalition.
However there are two further factors which take us to the heart of the conspiracy. Together they place it beyond any definition of acceptable politics. First, this was a policy in which Britain's "leading the way" as Hunt puts it, is entirely placed in the hands of a single foreign corporation. It is bad enough for an American to lecture us on how we will secure our "independence" by granting him all the freedom he desires. It is much worse, the word "treason" comes to mind, for Ministers and Prime Ministers to embrace him, his company and his views wholeheartedly.
Second, the heads of this corporation, father and son, were engaged in a criminal conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and the Tory leaders knew this.
I set out this case at some length in my forensic essay. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequor knew, understood and permitted the Murdochs to intimidate MPs, put themselves above the law and act with impunity. Rupert and James Murdoch deny this. They say that both the phone hacking and also the long, aggressive and costly cover up by their companies of the phone hacking, took place without their knowledge and that they are utterly straightforward chaps who operate strictly within the law. What happened, they claim, is that there was a concerted cover up within News International to prevent them, the poor diddums, from knowing the truth. This concerted plot against the Murdochs was carried out by Rupert’s life-long mate Les Hinton, Tom Crone the legal director of News of the World, Colin Myler its editor and doubtless Uncle Tom Cobley who was their go-between. Although not the Prime Minister's friend and neighbour Rebekah Brooks, now charged with conspiracy. Despite all her considerable talents for networking she was so close to the Murdochs that the conspirators also kept her in the dark (and under such innocent circumstances who might not seek to "remove seven boxes of material from the archives of News International" and seek to conceal "documents and computers" from investigating detectives, as the Crown now "weakly" alleges?).
Would you want to be governed by a Prime Minister who believes this?
I suppose it is a small comfort to say that he does not and we are not. If David Cameron were honest this is what he'd say:
Of course we cosied up with the Murdochs as often as we could because we agree with them! We want profit to be the only basis of a better society, like James. There was no small minded "deal" or “single transaction”. That would have been "wrong” to quote my predecessor Tony Blair and anyway it was unnecessary. The Murdochs and team Cameron met at Christmas and New Year, on horse back and before gatherings in New York, via texts and on the phone, in order to develop a joint approach based on mutual harmony, to borrow a term from our friends in the Communist Party in Beijing.
Faustian? You bet.
So when some people like myself say there was some great conspiracy between the Camerons and the Murdochs, this is what we mean. We allege:
- That there was a wide understanding and agreement to work together to secure the corporate supremacy and market values of James Murdoch. This agreement was arguably legitimate and most certainly was politics as we have come to know it in our benighted age of rule by a political class.
- Provided, that is, the Murdoch's were fit and proper people.
- But they are not. They have a well established reputation for intimidation, including of legislators; their newspapers had systematically broken the law and collaborated with criminals; the cover up of these crimes could not have been sustained except at the behest of the Murdochs themselves.
- Any rulers acting with honour would have seen it as a patriotic duty to protect Britain from any further expansion of their influence, however positively you might have viewed Rupert Murdoch's role in the past.
- To join with them in any exercise of mutual policy making, with the inevitable concommitant of seeking to secure each other in power, was therefore a conspiracy against the interests of the country.
People can conspire, however foolishly, for the greater good as they see it. But not with the Murdochs. The Prime Minister calls upon the word of Rupert Murdoch, who was ultimately responsible for the newspaper that hacked Milly Dowler's and hundreds of other phones, and directly responsible for the extensive conspiracy to cover up what happened after the exposure of hacking in 2006. The Prime Minister calls upon the word of this man - to assure us of the integrity of the government of our country. By doing so he brings shame upon it.
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