Hackgate – Some Questions of My Own
I had cleared my schedule, set (ironically) Sky+ to record, sat ready to tweet. Sadly, as is often the case with most over-hyped reality TV, the event itself was a disappointment.
The principle reason for this was an apparent inability by Select Committee members to ask probing, open-ended, non-leading questions which were capable of uncovering fresh information. MPs are more accustomed to making speeches, so there was a lot of rambling followed by “surely you could not disagree…” If Parliamentary Committees want broader and more draconian powers, I suggest they acquaint themselves with the principles of forensic examination.
One notable exception was Tom Watson MP, although others landed the occasional punch; his quiet, laconic, well researched and thought-out line of questioning was the highlight of the proceedings. The worst offender, by far, was Louise Mensch (with whom Rebekah Brooks is apparently on first name terms – perhaps they met at a recent birthday party) who spent the afternoon making speechlets drafted for her by Tory HQ.
Rupert Murdoch cut a fairly sad figure, even before being given the custard pie treatment. Most questions were followed by the sort of absent pause that could have put a 70’s Chekhov production to shame. Although, he did provide one tantalising bit of information: He visited David Cameron at number 10, only days after he had formed a government, because Cameron wanted to “have a cup of tea and thank him for his support”. He entered through the back door at number 10’s request.
Whether his doddery manner was genuine or an act, it left me thinking of the Act II finale of Puccini’s Tosca. The heroine has fatally stabbed the sadistic tyrant Baron Scarpia. She looks down at his corpse and exclaims: “And before this man, trembled all of Rome…”
Next up was James Murdoch. He should have been arrested right there and then for crimes against grammar and syntax – never mind phone-hacking. Rarely has a man said so little with so much. His long, meandering appeared to start and finish in different timezones. His repeated stuttering and dithering made me certain that he would wrap things up with “a-tha-the-tha-the-tha-the-That’s All Folks”. In short, his strategy was to be unintelligible.
James, like his father, either did not know, was not informed, had no inkling or could not remember anything. And was very, very, very sorry for everything, even though he did not know, was not informed, had no inkling or could not remember it. It prompted one MP to use the apt term “wilful blindness”. Added to their “collective amnesia”, the entire company needs five weeks at a spa, methinks.
Both of them (and Brooks later) tried to achieve an equilibrium between quite a few contradictory concepts: the notion that they knew nothing of the practices in the companies which they run, while trying not to look like incompetent fools to their shareholders; that these methods are wide-spread in most newspapers, while maintaining that they had no idea they were wide-spread in their own organisation; citing the Met’s decision not to reopen the investigation as the reason they did not look further, less than an hour after Met witnesses claimed they did not reopen the investigation because NewsInt’l misled them. Like a circle, in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…
Trying to spin and balance such mutually-exclusive concept-plates is dangerous work. The subsequent mess looked like the aftermath of a Greek wedding. One important piece of evidence was uncovered, however, and I don’t want you to miss it in the debris.
The Murdochs admitted that until recently they had been (and possibly are still) paying the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, the investigator at the centre of the hacking scandal; long after he pleaded guilty and went to prison. I wonder, did Rupert Murdoch tell the Dowler family when he met them to apologise, that his company was still picking up the tab for the man that hacked their dead daughter’s voicemail?
Finally came Rebekah Brooks, with a dazzling display of “lost little girl” acting – high-pitch voice, pouting mouth, wide eyes looking up á la Princess Di. Naturally, this manner is so at odds with what we know of her character and career, that it must be dismissed as a lie.
And Ms Brooks did not disappoint. Practically the first thing that came out of her mouth was a lie. She claimed (helpfully prompted by a Louise Mensch party political broadcast) that the use of Private Investigators was widespread in all newspapers. She claimed to quote from a table in the ICO’s report What Price Privacy Now? which showed that the News of The World were only fifth in the use of PI’s and that the top four included The Guardian and The Observer. The truth is quite different: the Observer is ninth, with four journalists having used a PI to NoTW’s 19 (and the Daily Mail’s 58 – ahem); The Guardian is not on the list at all.
Ms Brooks was at pains to point out that her own phone had been hacked. How can anyone suggest that she knew about it? There is, of course, the obvious response: if I were a PI hired by someone like Ms Brooks to hack people’s phones, hers might be the first one I hack; it’s called insurance.
But I also have another, possibly stupid, question. All these telephone numbers and names have been recovered from Mulcaire’s assorted notebooks, scraps of paper and scribbled memos. We know he worked for the NoTW at the time. Why is the assumption that the name “Rebekah Brooks” and her number appear in those notes as a victim and not as a contact?
Ms Brooks described David Cameron as “a neighbour and a friend”. She pointed out that during the Blair and Brown years she used to visit Downing Street on average six times a year, while she has never visited number 10 while Cameron has been PM. But she also accepts that she has met with him over 20 times in the last couple of years. Frankly, I have much less serious misgivings about a PM who meets an editor or CEO six times a year in his official residence and in his official capacity, rather than 20 times in two years outside both.
Yes, all PM’s have pandered to the press to a certain extent, starting with Thatcher openly courting Murdoch and helping him dismantle the printing and journalist unions. Blair was a particularly bad example. But the Cameron/Osborne/Yates/Murdoch/Brooks/Coulson posse is not pandering – it is an infiltration.
But there is a final, wider, more vital point.
NewsCorp’s capacity to help or hinder politicians via the media they own is only one aspect of their relationship to the Cameron regime. The other aspect, the darker aspect, the less reported and talked-about aspect, is of a government getting cosy with a very large corporation about to embark on a very large merger. That government then appears to act, irrationally, in favour of that merger; determined to wave it through. This thing has always been about the BSkyB takeover; about money. This is why Cameron should resign. Not because he made idiotic choices in his staff, but because he made scandalous choices of policy as a result.
And this is a most prominent feature of the Cameron administration. Its relationship to the Murdoch empire is one of a nexus which includes allowing Vodafone and Top Shop to get away with monumental tax avoidance (or evasion depending on one’s perspective); it includes treating the City’s financial institutions with kit gloves (does anyone even remember Project Merlin?) while they fund the Tory party; it includes accepting large donations from Private Healthcare providers to the Tory party and Andrew Lansley personally, while the NHS is being dismantled.
What we witnessed today was merely a skirmish in a very high profile battle. But, make no mistake; this battle is part of a much bigger, largely invisible war.
And that war is all about money.