Cameron at Leveson: Black and White and Reddening All Over

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron faced tough questions from a public inquiry about his close ties to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation

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National News / ZUMA Press

Prime Minister David Cameron appears at the Leveson Enquiry at the High Court, London, June 14, 2012.

Politicians often lament the distortions of the press. “If only we could bypass the media to give the public undiluted fact,” they cry. A nice irony of the Leveson Inquiry, set in motion by Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the phone hacking scandal to explore the dysfunctional relationship between Britain’s press and political classes, is that it has handed politicians just such an opportunity—and they don’t seem to be relishing it at all. At each session, broadcast live and untainted by editorial opinion, the inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson and a team of interrogators headed by the acerbic attorney Robert Jay invite witnesses to divulge the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. During 10 months of testimony, the panel has heard from 308 key players including three former Prime Ministers—in order of appearance Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major—and seven current senior members of the coalition government. On June 14, the inquiry summoned the Prime Minister himself. Cameron’s evidence—unvarnished, unspun and unmediated—may have done him more harm in the public eye than every snarky article or damning headline ever written about him.

His problem is that the focus of the inquiry, and of many of the parallel investigations sparked by the events that led to the shuttering of News Corporation’s British Sunday tabloid, News of the World, is trained on Rupert Murdoch and the ways in which the media baron has sought to exert influence on British public life. And although Cameron met with Murdoch ten times between securing the Conservative party leadership in December 2005 and the May 2010 general election, often but not remarkably so, his entanglements with people close to Murdoch went much further. As Cameron canvassed support for his Downing Street bid, there were more than 1,000 meetings with figures from a variety of media organizations, averaging 26 such powwows a month. These included 15 meetings between Cameron and James Murdoch, the youngest son of the News Corp Chairman and CEO, responsible at the time for the company’s U.K. holdings including News International, owner of two broadsheets, the Times and the Sunday Times, and two tabloids, the Sun and NOTW, and its interest in the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. There were 19 meetings with Rebekah Brooks, a former NOTW editor promoted to helm the larger daily, the Sun and then to chief executive of News International.

Once in power, Cameron entertained members of the fourth estate with less frequency, holding an average 13 meetings with media figures each month. But the statistics tell only part of the story. This was a culture of cozy “country suppers,” in a’ phrase used by Brooks, and Westminster dinners. Cameron’s relationship with Brooks, who married his school friend—the racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks—in 2009, the same year the Sun switched its backing from Labour to the Conservatives, became nothing short of chummy. How often had the Camerons and Brookses socialized, Jay wondered. “I don’t think every weekend,” Cameron replied. He later corrected his evidence, on the basis of his wife Samantha’s diary entries, to approximately once every six weeks. But a text message, sent by Brooks to Cameron on the eve of the his keynote speech to the 2009 Conservative party conference, suggests that their closeness was not only personal but also political. “I am so rooting for you too, not just as a proud friend but professionally. We’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life?” Brooks signs off the SMS with a variant of President Obama’s campaign slogan: “Yes he Cam!”

Puns on the Cameron name aren’t always so complimentary. Though the politician often impresses during parliamentary debates with his memory for detail, he’s not immune to a condition dubbed by Twitter wits #camnesia. Recently he and Samantha inadvertently left their young daughter Nancy in local pub, only discovering the mistake when they returned home in separate cars. (The Daily Telegraph‘s cartoonist responded with a picture of a Nancy sitting at the bar. The caption reads: “Oh no! I’ve left my father running the country!!!”) Forgetfulness also afflicted Cameron when Jay asked if he recalled how often he consulted Brooks when he was considering hiring her friend and former colleague Andy Coulson as his spin doctor to help him contest the 2010 election and, after coming to power, as Downing Street’s Director of Communications. Cameron flushed redder than Brooks’ Titian hair. “No,” he mumbled.

That decision is rued by Cameron as one “with 20-20 hindsight” he would not have made—and with considerable justification. Coulson had resigned as editor of NOTW in 2007 after the jailing of royal editor Clive Goodman and a private eye, Glenn Mulcaire, employed by the newspaper, for plotting to intercept voice mails left for Princes William and Harry and members of their household. His appointment renewed interest in NOTW’s murky history, triggering allegations of wider malpractice and corruption and a series of cataclysmic events that led Cameron to the Leveson witness box.

Both Brooks and Coulson have been charged with offenses connected to the scandal, Brooks with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and Coulson by police in Scotland for perjury during the 2010 trial of Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan. Both vigorously deny the charges. And Cameron has been left vigorously denying a raft of damning suppositions about how he came to nestle so closely to such a duo. He rejected as “an entirely specious and unjustified conspiracy theory” earlier Leveson testimony by Gordon Brown suggesting Cameron made a backroom deal, bartering promises of policies helpful to Murdoch’s businesses in exchange for the endorsement of the Sun. “There was no overt deal for support, there was no covert deal. There were no nods and winks,” Cameron declared. And he insisted that he chose Coulson for Coulson’s skills alone, adding, “He was the only tabloid editor available.”

That admission speaks volumes. What Cameron craved more than just the approval of the media was its transformative powers. The posh pol chose a tabloid editor not only to help communicate with ordinary voters but to help to remodel his image from a member of a coddled, clubby elite to shirtsleeves Dave, the kind of bloke who’d buy you a pint and understand your troubles. In another nice irony, the phone hacking scandal raised questions of trust and judgment, but it took the remorseless detail of the Leveson Inquiry, with its freedom from editorial judgment, to shred, finally, the last vestiges of Cameron’s efforts to present himself as the people’s Prime Minister.