British Prime Minister David Cameron faced a televised grilling over the nature of his relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s press group yesterday at an inquiry that has turned into a slow-motion political disaster for the British leader.
Cameron’s daylong appearance at the Leveson Inquiry comes after months of embarrassing revelations on his friendships with people at the heart of Murdoch’s News Corp, including two former newspaper editors now facing criminal charges.
Cameron’s judgment has also come under attack over his backing for a minister accused of discreetly championing News Corp’s bid for full ownership of pay-TV firm BSkyB at a time when he was supposed to be an impartial overseer.
One of the themes now dominating the inquiry is a widely held view that generations of British politicians cultivated powerful media figures, especially Rupert Murdoch, in a tacit agreement to look after each other’s interests.
“The idea of overt deals is nonsense. I also don’t believe in this theory that was sort of a nod and a wink and some sort of covert agreement,” Cameron told the inquiry.
Cameron set up the inquiry into media standards himself last year after a phone-hacking scandal erupted at one of Murdoch’s UK tabloids, but he has found himself increasingly under its glare.
His decision to agree to spend a whole working day at Leveson, at a time when he is under intense pressure over an economic recession, the euro zone crisis and other pressing matters, is a measure of how much the fallout from the Murdoch saga is dogging his prime ministership.
He was well prepared and gave evidence fluently in the morning session. He clasped his hands and frowned in concentration as he listened to questions from lawyer Robert Jay, and when speaking jabbed his hands left and right for emphasis.
It contrasted with his usually relaxed, spontaneous style, reflecting the pressure on the prime minister to appear statesmanlike and authoritative.
“I think this relationship [between politicians and journalists] has been going wrong for, you know, it’s never been perfect. There have always been problems. You can point to examples of Churchill putting Beaverbrook as a minister,” Cameron said.
In what many will consider a flattering comparison, Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill controversially appointed press baron Lord Beaverbrook to his cabinet in 1940.
Cameron’s own dangerous liaisons include a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Murdoch and former executive at his British business, and the hiring of Andy Coulson, also a Murdoch ex-editor, as his trusted spokesman.