Big game week on Lord Justice Leveson’s savannah

Nik Darlington 9.28am

The Leveson sideshow is on its way out of town after a stage run of more than 6 months. The press, to varying extents, has afforded the inquiry an importance it probably does not deserve, which is odd considering Lord Justice Leveson’s quarry is the press itself.

This week is ‘big game’ week, when the elephants, rhinos and other titans of the animal kingdom sit in the cross-hairs of the wooden inquisitor, Robert Jay QC.

Yesterday brought a rare sight indeed. Pine martens are seen in public more often these days than Gordon Brown, hidden away as they are in their Scottish refuge. I can drag this analogy further still. Pine martens are said to be reducing Britain’s population of invasive grey squirrels. The Murdochs are not grey squirrels, but for many they have an invasive characteristic; and Mr Brown grumbled into the hearing yesterday with one thing in mind, to eradicate the miserable memory of the Murdoch press.

I have enormous sympathy with Mr Brown for the coverage of his son’s cystic fibrosis. It was a reprehensible and unprofessional act by the NHS worker(s) who passed on the sensitive information to the Sun. And it was a despicable editorial decision by Rebekah Brooks’ to publish the story. On the front page. We have no reason to disbelieve Mr Brown’s assertion that he and his wife were presented with little more than a fait accompli by the Sun's editor.

But an innocent bystander in the vicious briefing wars that beset Tony Blair’s premiership and his? Gordon Brown is pulling a fast one of the highest order.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, also appeared yesterday, with an air of such relaxed insouciance to be bordering on blasé. The only moments of uneasiness centred on questions to do with his relationship with Andrew Coulson, whom Mr Osborne had a big hand in hiring, though even then he was let off lightly.

Today we have an appearance from the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, who I’m sure shall enlighten Lord Leveson with his sycophantic tailcoat trailing at smug News International cocktail parties.

We will also be hearing from another, greatly more respected, former prime minister, Sir John Major. If Gordon Brown is the leopard that never changes his spots (he might look like a grey elephant these days, but on yesterday’s evidence his memory is not up to a pachyderm’s exacting standards), then Sir John is the august old lion, long retired but still surveying the field.

You don’t have to be much in the know to know that Sir John Major has some very strong views about the role of the press. Who wouldn’t after the treatment unfairly dealt to him during the 1990s? It is unlikely to add anything of material note to the Leveson Inquiry’s proceedings - more colour than censure - but it could be one of the more fascinating sessions of one of the more miserable political inquiries.

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PMQs review: A muttering idiot of a draw

Jack Blackburn 3.45pm

The last Prime Minister’s Questions for three weeks before a joint Jubilee and Whitsun recess was a distinctly bizarre scoreless draw.

It didn’t so much resemble the two most senior politicians in the land debating matters of policy, as it did two angry siblings who simply weren’t listening to each other. Oh, and there was an irritating cousin thrown into the mix.

Edward Miliband’s tactic today was divide and rule. It is one we can expect to see more of over the coming months. Seeking to exploit the evident antagonism between the Business Secretary and Adrian Beecroft, author of this week’s controversial report on employment reform, the Leader of the Opposition set about asking where the Prime Minister stood.

This strategy is brazen but flawed, not least because all the front bench Lib Dems were strangely absent, thereby not allowing for television shots of awkward Lib Dems.

However, Mr Cameron avoided fulsomely embracing the report, suggesting that some recommendations would be taken and others would not, before the major exchange descended into an unstructured melee.

Edward tried to score points on, well, just about anything: Hunt, Coulson, growth, tax cuts for millionaires -  they were all there, culminating in his claim that “the nasty party is back”. Dave started banging on about the trade unions influence on Labour policy. All of the questions and the answers seem to have been decided quite some time before the session. It was a total damp squib.

The meat of the session actually took place after the Leader of the Opposition had sat down. The Prime Minister was asked about the ECHR’s ruling on voting rights for prisoners. The Prime Minister said he would stand for the sovereignty of Parliament and his belief that going to prison meant you lost certain rights, including the right to vote. This is a story that shall keep on rolling.

However, the headlines were stolen by that irritating cousin, namely Ed Balls. He repeatedly asked the Prime Minister how many glasses of wine he’d had, and needled the Flashman in Dave, as is his desire. Finally, by now having “we’re in recession” chanted at him by Mr Balls, Dave could take no more and Flashman flipped. He described the Shadow Chancellor as a “muttering idiot”, causing uproar in the chamber.

Succumbing to goading as such an easy thing to do. It is also easy to wind someone up. However, both these important public figures should not be doing it. Mr Cameron was forced to withdraw his “unparliamenatry” comment. Mr Balls is not subject to sanction. Speaker Bercow, of the pseudo-Headmasterly air, should perhaps get in touch with that instinct now, because these two schoolboys could use some discipline.

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PMQs Review: Cameron addresses the scandal

Jack Blackburn 3.10pm

By all accounts, David Cameron was visibly rattled at PMQs today, and photographs show that the last week has aged him somewhat. His personal connections to the “Chipping Norton Set”, and his hiring of Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications have dragged him deeper into this scandal than he would have liked. Ed Miliband, who, as Nik Darlington pointed out in his Total Politics column, has no such connections “Mainly through his own fault of being uninteresting”, and he is attempting to capitalise on this.

Today, David Cameron was again challenged about his personal connections at PMQs, and he responded well to these low-grade attacks. He strikingly distanced himself from Coulson, and again said that his close friend Rebekah Brooks’ resignation, if offered, should have been accepted. It has taken him a while, but he has finally put his colours to the mast.

The fact is that whilst the Prime Minister may have been politically unwise in hiring Coulson, the man remained able and intelligent and was capable of doing well in that job. Coulson was asked about his connection to these nefarious activities by Cameron, and he denied all knowledge. It was a matter of trust. That trust having been misplaced does not remove a Bambi-esque element from the PM’s version of events. But it is to be reiterated that he certainly did no wrong personally and has been lied to more directly than any member of the public.

Cameron highlighted this in his response: “Let me say once more, if I was lied to, if the police was lied to, if the Select Committee was lied to, it would be a matter of deep regret and a matter for criminal prosecution.”

Ultimately, Coulson is a sideshow in all of this. He is merely the symptom, not the underlying cause. He should be investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted with the full force of the law, but as far as Parliament and the Government goes, they have to investigate the scandal as a whole, and not the subplots.

Ed Miliband is pursuing these subplots and it shows a lack of real leadership. Ed has had a good week, but if he thinks he has become the voice of the people, he has another thing coming.

In a late twist, Murdoch has withdrawn the bid for BskyB, thus ridding this afternoon’s parliamentary debate of all potency. Given that the motion is now outdated, Parliament will now have to simply concur with News International’s actions.

So, as the day wears on, we have a Prime Minister who has finally taken the plunge and is seemingly rising from a low point and a Leader of the Opposition whose only moment of success is drawing to a close, and may once again be without any wind in his sails. The summer has come at a good moment for Dave, but one feels that Ed is longing for autumn.

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA

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Shame on all your houses

Giles Marshall 1.42pm

Hubris hits us all in time, so it seems. For decades Rupert Murdoch has bestrode the British political scene. Unencumbered by the menial requirements of your everyday voter - such as UK citizenship or the need to pay taxes - Mr Murdoch has wielded more power and influence over Prime Ministers, putative and actual, than any normal citizen. His editors have been the satraps of his power, the unelected viziers demanding preferred policies from a timid and beleaguered political class.

How things change. The crisis in journalism effected by the hacking scandal has been boiling under the surface for years but has burst on to the scene largely without warning. It is not only changing the way that things are done but shining a light on the darker corners of the British polity.

The Independent's Steve Richards has written a trenchant article today about these changes. He remarks on the extraordinary scenes of once fearful MPs lining up to attack the Murdoch ‘empire’ (it’s always an empire, isn’t it?), and his key henchmen and women. It is a fine read, suitably over the top and biting about the malign influence of News International. I wonder whether it could have been written the day before yesterday, even at the Indy, which along with the Guardian has admirably not shied away from coverage of the scandal.

Few can emerge with much credit from the disentangling of these dubious and illegal practices. The bulk of the newspapers have failed to produce any sort of investigation, a sorry state of affairs brilliantly and damningly described by Peter Oborne in an essay for the Spectator. The Guardian stands honourably alone in this regard and we can only speculate as to the pressure that newspaper has had to withstand both within and without the incestuous media world.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has remained a vapid eunuch incapable of action against its own. The political class, repeatedly confronted as it is by the vicious excesses of tabloid journalism, cravenly failed to take a stand (barring a few exceptions, notably Labour’s Tom Watson). Only now as the giant is on its knees are they starting to run towards it, kicking and punching and biting for all they are worth.

The Metropolitan Police’s role is particularly murky and itself the subject of a potential investigation. While quick to leap into action against politicians - for instance on cash for honours or MPs’ expenses - police officers have proven less enthusiastic to pursue the papers.

The shabbiest actions, however, are reserved for our leading politicians. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, the collective currying for Murdoch’s favour has been a ludicrous sideshow of lilliputian proportions. Blair’s flight in 1995 to an Australian junket with News Corp executives; Cameron’s decision to employ Andy Coulson and his wining and dining with Rebekah Brooks; Ed Miliband’s toadying at the News International summer bash and signing up another former Murdoch man, Tom Baldwin, as his press secretary.

The press wields enormous power. It has the nefarious ability to destroy the reputations of individuals big and small. Such are this country’s libel laws that journalists rarely need to apologise for their grievous errors. With the stroke of a pen or click of a mouse, journalists can cause enormous unaccountable damage and it is now starkly shown that they have been employing illegal means to intrude on private lives with the utmost indecency and impunity. While gleeful to demand the hides of politicians when they err, key figures in News International now simply slink away into their unfathomable fortress.

Will there be any justice? Will Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson et al face the comeuppance they so often demand of others? Justice, in this instance, has to be more than a mere inquiry or two into News International. Justice requires a root-and-branch review of the way that the press conducts itself.

One of David Cameron’s predecessors in Number 10, Stanley Baldwin, when under pressure from the Rupert Murdoch of his day, Lord Beaverbrook, commented that the press ‘had power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ He pointed to journalism at its lowest point. What the journalistic profession could and should be is eloquently summed up by Peter Oborne:

Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for truth and decency.

If the result of this scandal is that journalism can return to these high ideals, rather than this tawdry state of affairs, then something good may come of it after all.

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