If a man is judged by the company he keeps, it may be time for British Prime Minister David Cameron to reassess who he’s palling around with. Former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie, with whom Cameron ate cozy dinners and went horseback riding, were both charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice on May 15. And on May 31, Andy Coulson, Cameron’s former communications director, was detained by police and charged with perjury.
Coulson, who was also once an editor at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, was a controversial choice to become Cameron’s media adviser while the Conservative leader was head of the opposition in Parliament in 2007. Just weeks after Coulson resigned from the tabloid, its royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, was jailed for phone hacking. Of course, it’s been suggested that Cameron was likely playing a larger media game with the choice, possibly attempting to garner favor from the Murdoch press. If so, it was a successful move, as the Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid pivoted in 2009 and began backing Cameron’s Conservative Party after 12 years of supporting the Labour Party.
When the phone-hacking scandal broke, Cameron was quick to defend his communications director — and his choice — by saying Coulson had given him assurances he’d known nothing of phone hacking at News of the World and had even “[become] a friend and is a friend.” Cameron later changed his tune and admitted that with “20-20 hindsight and all that has followed, I would not have offered him the job.”
With hindsight, Cameron might have wished he’d kept more of a distance from Murdoch as well. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair explained in his testimony to the public inquiry into media ethics headed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson on May 28, politicians seeking the highest office in the land have been more tempted in recent years to harness the power of Murdoch’s media empire than to challenge it. Cameron himself has said, “I’m responsible for the decisions I take, the people I employ, the government I run. The buck stops right here, and I take full responsibility for every single thing I do.” It certainly seems that several of Cameron’s critics would like to see him take responsibility for the judgment calls he has made in relation to Brooks, Coulson — and their former News Corp. boss.
As for Coulson, his latest legal challenge is the perjury charge, stemming from the 2010 trial of Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan, who was also charged with perjury. An investigation into the phone-hacking scandal in Scotland has been examining whether witnesses lied in court during Sheridan’s trial. Coulson testified at the time that he wasn’t aware of phone hacking at the tabloid. “I’m saying I had absolutely no knowledge of it,” he said. Coulson released a statement via his lawyer on Thursday, saying he was ready to “vigorously contest the perjury allegations” against him “should they ever result in trial.”
And then there are Cameron associates who haven’t been charged with criminal activity, but have nonetheless been fingered for inappropriate behavior, like Jeremy Hunt, the Tory Culture Secretary and witness du jour at the Leveson inquiry. While Hunt hasn’t been implicated in any illegal practices, he’s been repeatedly called out for his allegedly cozy relationship with News Corp. during its multibillion-dollar takeover bid for the British Sky Broadcasting company. Hunt was meant to be adjudicating the bid, yet a trove of e-mails and text messages revealed a chummy, unprofessional ease between Hunt’s adviser Adam Smith and News Corp. lobbyist Frédéric Michel. Even more damning was the revelation that Hunt had accepted the position just weeks after sending a memo to Cameron advocating strongly for government approval of the takeover.
During Hunt’s testimony to Leveson on Thursday, he was grilled about his alleged bias in favor of the News Corp. takeover. It was revealed that just hours before he accepted the position to oversee the bid, Hunt sent a text message to James Murdoch congratulating him on clearing a European regulatory hurdle that stood in the way of the takeover. Hunt also said he had not given Smith, who was pushed out of his job for his inappropriate correspondence with News Corp., clear guidance on how to converse with the Murdoch camp, yet also said Smith would have been aware of his feelings about the bid.
Cameron has gone out of his way to publicly defend both Hunt and his own decision to place Hunt in the quasi-judicial position despite having explicit knowledge of the Culture Secretary’s enthusiasm for the takeover. Appearing on a British morning television news show, Cameron said “the key thing was it wasn’t what [Hunt] had said in the past, it was how he was going to do the job.” He added that Hunt had “asked for independent advice at every stage” and took that advice “in a thoroughly proper way.”
Cameron’s steadfast support of his beleaguered friends and colleagues can be interpreted as a virtue — his personal loyalties appear unswayed by the political costs of his friendships. On the other hand, Hunt’s departure would leave Cameron — and his judgment calls — more exposed to direct scrutiny.
And although there’s something admirable in Cameron’s refusal to bend with the winds of public opinion, that may also be because of his ability to screen out views he doesn’t like. Unhappy Conservative backbenchers complain that Cameron is unreceptive to their input, instead preferring to rely on the counsel of his inner circle of advisers and friends.
As the government stumbles from one controversy to the next and the phone-hacking scandal laps at Downing Street, the quality of that counsel is called into question. When explaining his decision to hire Coulson, Cameron notably said that he wanted to “give him a second chance.” He would do well to consider how many chances he’ll get with voters.