If we learnt anything from David Cameron’s appearance before the Leveson Inquiry last night it is that he and the Murdochs were even closer than we thought.
The highlight of the British PM’s five hours of evidence was a text message from Rebekah Brooks, Rupert’s favourite CEO, wishing Cameron luck at the 2009 Conservative Party conference.
“I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together!” Brooks gushed to the Tory leader. “Speech of your life? Yes he Cam.”
The mantra “we’re in this together” kind of sums it all up.
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So what did the two parties get out of this extraordinarily close relationship? The first thing, of course, is access for Brooks and her boss. Cameron disclosed to Leveson that he met Rupert Murdoch 10 times while in opposition, on top of the seven occasions he met him for lunch, dinner, tea or a chat after becoming prime minister.
He also met Rupert’s son James 15 times before he became PM, and Brooks 19 times. And he then had half-a-dozen lunches and dinners with one or other or both of them at his or their home, after being elected.
And that’s not counting the occasions when Cam popped over for tea at Rebekah’s country cottage in the village of Churchill, near where the PM has his Cotswold weekender. Cameron told Leveson this wouldn’t have been as often as “every weekend”, and later suggested it was more like once every six weeks.
But however you cut the numbers, it is a quite remarkable degree of contact. So what did it deliver to each side?
Cameron told Leveson he had done no deals with Murdoch — overt or covert — in exchange for the support of the tycoon’s papers (and particularly the backing of Rupert’s powerful tabloid The Sun, which Brooks edited from 2003 to 2009). But he would say that, wouldn’t he? And the record shows Cameron’s government has done just what Murdoch wanted on two matters very close to the mogul’s heart.
First is the BBC, which James Murdoch savaged in his famous McTaggart lecture in 2009 when he accused BSkyB’s biggest rival of running a “land grab” and having “chilling” ambitions to dominate Britain’s media.
Six months after gaining office in May 2010, the Cameron government froze the BBC’s licence fee for the next six years, effectively cutting the public broadcaster’s resources by 16% and forcing it to cut staff and programmes.
Second is Ofcom, the media regulator, which the Murdochs hate almost as much as the Beeb. Here, the Cameron government has done an even better job, cutting the regulator’s budget by 28%, reducing its powers and forcing it to shed one-fifth of its staff.
But the Murdochs’ biggest win of all would have been to win full control of BSkyB, had The Guardian not revealed in July 2011 that the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. It’s quite clear from the evidence presented to Leveson that Cameron’s Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was a cheerleader for the $12 billion takeover. It is also clear that Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, knew full well this was Hunt’s mindset before they gave him the job.
What emerged at Leveson last night was that Hunt was given charge of the bid by Cameron and Osborne before receiving legal advice that his bias — or his private and public pro-bid remarks — would not prevent him from acting impartially.
But biased Hunt was and biased he remained. During the year in which he considered whether the bid should be allowed to go ahead, his special adviser, Adam Smith, exchanged more than 1000 chummy emails, texts and phone calls with News Corp’s in-house lobbyist Fred Michel.
One of the last of these from Fred Michel on June 30 last year, welcoming Hunt’s statement that the bid would go through, chortled: “Just showed to Rupert! Great statement by the way.”
An hour later, Michel followed up with: “Think we are in a good place, no?” To which Adam Smith fired back: “Very, yes, Jeremy happy.”
Only Brooks could have put this better: “We’re in this together”.
The point of it all — which Brooks and the Murdochs don’t seem to have grasped — is that they shouldn’t be.