An inquiry with purpose hijacked by politicians
There's a tell-tale sign when rolling news channels have judged an event particularly newsworthy. They send up a helicopter with a camera.
The Queen's Jubilee got the Sky News "Skycopter" treatment; the panorama of the river flotilla captured in all its glory. The Raoul Moat manhunt, too, was recorded from high above remote rural Northumberland.
Few would question the merits of this inventive and, probably, quite costly device in covering these stories. It generally satisfies the public interest criteria, and the one that decides what the public is interested in.
Sometimes, however, the Skycopter takes to the skies on a whim. This week, David Cameron appeared at what is known colloquially as "Leveson", the judge-led public inquiry into Press and media standards following phone hacking revelations, notably the telephone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. As the Prime Ministerial car and cavalcade of security rolled from Downing Street to the Royal Courts of Justice, the Skycopter was there to capture every stop at a red light.
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It is at this point those not following every cough and spit of the inquiry raised an eyebrow.
Why was the Prime Minister who appointed Lord Justice Leveson to oversee the inquiry appearing before that very inquiry? This wasn't in the script.
Sky News was not the only broadcaster to find his appearance riveting. The BBC, too, devoted large chunks of its output to Mr Cameron's views on whether television was more important than the printed Press, who met whom on a yacht in Santorini and what he doesn't recall – which was quite a lot as it turned out. And yet, who was interested aside from an elite band of journalists and politicos?
Elsewhere in the "real" world the eurozone was on the brink of collapse, more children have plunged into poverty and there is the remorseless bloodbath in Syria.
Any one of these issues is appreciably more worthy of the Prime Minister's time than how many "country suppers" he had with former News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks. The Prime Minister's evidence followed what amounted to a series of history lessons from his three predecessors: John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Each offered their own fairly dim view of the Press, each having had fairly unedifying experiences at the hands of reporters.
Newspapers were variously portrayed as bullying, prone to exaggeration and major contributors to the coarsening of society. Predictably, each painted their own behaviour as beyond reproach. Mr Brown's evidence, in particular, prompted hoots of derision from political journalists. The former Labour Prime Minister claimed he had not sanctioned, or had no knowledge of, briefings against his predecessor, Mr Blair. This was despite the long-standing enmity between the two rivals being the biggest feud in British politics in the last 20 years. Again, absorbing for the political anoraks, less so for the vast majority of the British population.
Yet that is where we find ourselves in an inquiry that defines the word exhaustive. First it was journalists in the dock, now it is politicians. Did Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt break the ministerial code by showing favourable treatment to News Corps over the proposed takeover of BSkyB? Was David Cameron misled by his director of communications Andy Coulson over phone hacking when he was editor of the News of the World? Have politicians been too close to newspaper proprietors for too long?
No one working in the media generally, and newspapers specifically, is foolish enough to put the telescope to the blind eye and suggest the widespread hacking of phones is anything other than abhorrent. Many sharp practices face being outlawed, if they are not illegal in any case. If the law has been broken, the perpetrators should face the consequences. The Press faces a future operating under statutory regulations, but even the most outspoken critic of newspapers have erred away from limiting freedom of speech.
But that is not where Leveson finds itself. The inquiry, somewhat inevitably, has been hijacked by politicians to further their interests. It is no coincidence that at the most recent Prime Minister's Questions, Ed Miliband, the leader of the Opposition, attempted to skewer Mr Cameron over the most embarrassing Leveson revelations. A Labour backbencher went as far as accusing Mr Hunt of lying in Parliament, an act that would usually be ruled out of order. In turn, the Conservatives accuse Labour of writing the book on schmoozing the powerful Murdoch empire, recalling the "pyjama parties" and more embarrassing episodes besides. The Liberal Democrats get to play the good guys, orchestrating an ostentatious display of independence by refusing vote on whether Mr Hunt should face an inquiry.
Each calls the other a hypocrite to braying from the backbenches. It is politics at its most opportunistic and reprehensible, the victims of phone hacking reduced to a mere footnote.