by Alex Massie
Today in Hacking: Rebekah Brooks has been arrested on grounds of conspiring to intercept communications and, more generally, on a bundle of corruption charges. Since this story is no place for the naive, the appropriate measure of cynicism demands one ask why Brooks has been arrested today? At the very least this development is likely to make a mockery of her appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Tuesday.
One imagines Brooks' lawyers will suggest she come armed with one answer to any and all questions: "I'm sorry but these are matters currently being investigated by the police and I would not want to jeopardise or otherwise prejudice those enquiries. Accordingly I am afraid that I cannot answer your question."
Meanwhile, this entire affair has put some stress on David Cameron's coalition government. This has been a good week for Ed Miliband (the best since he beat his brother to the Labour leadership) and he's enjoying a bump in the polls as a result of his ability to get ahead of the government on all this. (Caveat: this bump means his approval rating is now only -13.)
Then again a three-legged tortoise could have beaten the government in any race to grasp the essence of this scandal. The pickle Cameron finds himself may be measured by this withering editorial in yesterday's Daily Telegraph:
After the revelations of the past week, the whole world has learned the shameful truth about modern Britain: that its leading politicians and policemen have been lining up to have their palms greased and images burnished by executives of a media empire guilty of deeply criminal – and morally repugnant – invasions of personal privacy. Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor who stood down as chief executive of News International yesterday, has at least belatedly recognised the role she played in nurturing this culture. David Cameron, in contrast, has thrown Andy Coulson to the wolves rather than explain precisely why he admitted to his inner circle a man who, when he was editor of the same paper, presided over reporters who hacked the Royal family’s mobile phones. The Prime Minister has also done his best – unsuccessfully – to deflect attention from the fact that he spent Christmas with Mrs Brooks and her husband, and that Mr Coulson visited Chequers as recently as March.
[...] Admittedly, the custom of Cabinet ministers and police officers grovelling to Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenants dates back at least as far as the early days of New Labour, for whom it was an essential element of statecraft. It therefore should make anyone feel queasy to hear Alastair Campbell pontificating on the subject of corruption, as he has been doing this week.
Still, David Cameron should have dismantled this quasi-masonic circle, with its conspiratorial deal-cutting and back-scratching. Instead, encouraged by George Osborne, he invited the circle into Downing Street, giving Mr Coulson an undeserved second chance. Mr Cameron is paying the price for this and other cynical moves. At a time when he is supposed to be navigating Britain through both the domestic and global debt crises, the Prime Minister is desperately trying to align himself with public opinion and distance himself from the News International scandal. Government has given way to the shallowest form of crisis management.
This, remember, is the paper informally known as the Torygraph. True, there's an element of schadefreude given that the Telegraph Media Group, like everyone else not called Murdoch, opposed News Corp's attempt to purchase the whole of BSkyB. Equally, it's hard not to think that the Telegraph is a little miffed that Cameron should have spent so much time courting the Murdoch papers. But that's because the Murdoch papers, almost uniquely, are swing papers prepared to give (or sell!) their backing to the highest bidder or, to be kinder, especially interested in following the shifting sands of public opinion and always willing to hop aboard the bandwagon driven by whomever is deemed the coming man.
It is also true, however, that Cameron leads a government that has few friends on Fleet Street. The Guardian and Mirror groups are, as you would expect, hostile but so too in many respects are the Mail and Telegraph stables. The latter is unpersuaded by Cameron's more liberal tendencies (nor has it found it easy to accept the realities and compromises that are a necesary part of coalition) while Mail editor Paul Dacre is widely believed to loathe Cameron, considering him a curious hybrid of complacent toff and political spiv.
That leaves the Times as perhaps the paper most in tune with the Cameroons. Well, the Times and the Economist. Both fine institutions but not, perhaps, quite where you'd choose to begin assembling an electoral coalition. Stagnant times are an opportunity for populism but neither Cameron nor Nick Clegg are natural populists. That's to their credit but it creates difficulties too, especially on issues nearest and dearest to the hearts of tabloid editors.