Are Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron Locked in a Death Spiral?

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Left; Uli Seit / The New York Times / Redux: Carl Court / AFP / Getty Images

Left; Rupert Murdoch leaves the funeral of slain journalist Marie Colvin, a war correspondent, at St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church in Oyster Bay, New York, March 12, 2012: and British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves his official residence at 10 Downing Street after a meeting with Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas in central London on March 1, 2012.

A deep vein of comedy runs through British public life. The hacking and corruption scandal still roiling Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, though unleashed by the tragedy of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, created the Restoration theatrics of the Leveson Inquiry and another farce Twitter users swiftly tagged #Rebekahshorse. That story, which surfaced last month, focused on Rebekah Brooks, whose increasingly busy resumé includes stints as editor of Murdoch’s doomed tabloid News of the World and his beloved daily, the Sun, her promotion to CEO of News Corp.’s British subsidiary, News International, and subsequent resignation, and her arrest, twice, without charge, in connection with ongoing investigations into the scandal. The horse in question, Raisa, might have expected a quiet pasturing after a working life carrying members of the Metropolitan Police Service. Instead the MPS, better known outside the U.K. as Scotland Yard, loaned Raisa to Brooks, a keen equestrian. The revelation of this arrangement, by the London Evening Standard in late February, highlighted the cozy relations between the Yard and the Murdoch press before the hacking scandal. Or, to be precise, before the first hacking scandal, the one about voice mails and ill-gotten red-top exclusives. “Hacking” is also a term Brits commonly deploy to describe the kind of recreational riding that Brooks enjoyed courtesy of London’s cops.

Brooks wasn’t the only prominent person to indulge in the second variety of hacking. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron admitted on March 2 that he, too, had ridden Raisa. For days, Britain’s chattering classes couldn’t chatter for ROFLing at this odd twist in the twisted tale. But the episode was no laughing matter for Cameron. The high-born Conservative leader worked hard ahead of his 2010 election to rid himself and his party of the taint of privilege. He made some headway, not least thanks to his communications chief Andy Coulson, like Brooks a former editor of the News of the World, with a populist touch. The horse affair undid some of that work. Riding is widely seen as a rich man’s sport. Cameron had gone out hacking with Rebekah’s husband Charlie, whom he first met during their feather-bedded schooldays at that most elite of elite institutions, Eton College. Throw in the links to the police and Murdoch and it was hard to imagine a scenario that could do more to damage Cameron’s attempts to present himself as the People’s Prime Minister.

Truth being stranger than fiction, such a scenario has already materialized, courtesy of the March 25 edition of the Sunday Times, a weekly broadsheet newspaper from News International’s, ahem, stable. Undercover reporters, posing as potential big donors to the Conservative party, tempted the party’s co-treasurer Peter Cruddas into promising access to the Prime Minister, including the possibility of Downing Street dinners, that would, said Cruddas, prove “awesome” for their business. He wasn’t wrong. His braggadocio, secretly filmed by the journalists, provided the newspaper with an awesome scoop that precipitated his immediate departure from his fundraising role. Prime Ministers may entertain whomsoever they choose, but Cruddas appeared to suggest that donors’ money could secure more than just a meal to remember. “If you’re unhappy about something we’ll feed it into the policy committee at No. 10 [Downing Street]. We feed all feedback into the policy committee,” he said.

(SPECIAL: Who’s Who in the U.K. Phone-Hacking Scandal)

Downing Street initially sought to play down the story, refusing to provide the names of donors who had already enjoyed Prime Ministerial hospitality, but soon Cameron’s advisers performed what the British media call a “reverse ferret,” a volte face. (The term was coined by a Sun editor in the 1980s, and relates to competitive ferret-legging, a sport as closely associated with Britain’s working class as riding is with the gentry.) The guest list, of men and women of means, was duly published, again underscoring the idea of Cameron as a politician more interested in the wealthy than ordinary voters.  A poll published in the Independent newspaper on March 27 showed the Conservatives trailing Labour by 10 points, the opposition party’s highest lead registered by polling company ComRes in seven years. Respondents said that they saw the Tories as the “party of the rich,” after last week’s business-friendly budget reduced the top-rate of tax while scrapping age-related allowances for pensioners. (Twitter immediately dubbed the latter a #Grannytax.)

(MORE: The Sun Rises on Sunday, but Murdoch’s News International Faces More Controversy)

A key part of Coulson’s job was to anticipate and avoid these sorts of stumbles. With his departure in January 2011 as the hacking scandal bubbled up (he would be arrested in connection with the scandal in July 2011), Cameron lost the man he saw as his direct line to ordinary Britons—and a guarantor of good treatment by the Murdoch press. It’s certainly reasonable to suppose that if Coulson were still in office, Cruddas might never have been targeted. With Coulson gone and Cameron’s government ordering investigations into the press and sometimes joining in a sport that all classes of Brit seem to enjoy—Murdoch-bashing—that protection has gone.

The Cruddas debacle showed that the Murdoch press are far from a spent force. It also and inevitably inspired a Twitter hashtag, after a popular TV program, Come Dine With Me—#CamDineWithMe. “Didn’t dine with Cameron. Preferred to grab something on the hoof,” snarked @RebekahsHorse, a Twitter feed of unknown pedigree but  2000-plus followers. @RupertMurdoch, whose wealth and power apparently are no longer enough to guarantee him access to the best table in Britain, gave his own assessment in four tweets:

Great Sunday Times scoop. What was Cameron thinking? No-one, rightly or wrongly will believe his story.

Cameron should have just followed history and flogged some seats in the [House of] Lords, if they still have value! precedents of centuries.

Of course there must be a full independent inquiry on both sides. In great detail, and with consequences. Trust must be established.

Without trust, democracy, and order will go.

These observations, from a mogul battling to restore trust in the output and governance of his own organization, are not without comedic value. Indeed, no sooner had the Sunday Times‘s Cruddas exposé reminded Brits of the newspaper’s long and strong heritage of serious investigative journalism shared by other Murdoch titles than a BBC documentary raised fresh questions against News Corp. practices, alleging that one of its companies had retained a hacker to, ahem, ferret out and disseminate codes needed to access a rival pay TV operation’s services for free. This was followed by allegations of similar dirty tricks to undermine rivals in Australia. Hacking rides again?

Without doubt there has been wrongdoing at News Corp., at very least, as Murdoch has himself acknowledged, at the News of the World. As he pursues a course of damage limitation, you might have expected Murdoch to revert to his old tactic of making friends in high places. One thing seems clear: he no longer counts Cameron in that category.

The comedy of British public life threatens to turn into Jacobean tragedy as erstwhile allies turn on each other and the corpses of promising careers pile up. And Murdoch isn’t wrong about the problem of trust in public life. He and Cameron and politicians tarnished in the hacking imbroglio or earlier scandals, over expenses or access, all look like part of that problem, as does Scotland Yard. Individually, these sagas have thrown up plenty to laugh about. Collectively they have the makings of something much sadder.

Catherine Mayer is TIME Europe Editor. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook <”>Facebook> page and on Twitter at @TIME .

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