On October 7, 2009, News International chief Rebekah Brooks sent opposition leader David Cameron a text message:
I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together!
The “tomorrow” in question was the final day of that year’s Conservative Party conference. Cameron would not have been surprised by Brooks’s words. James Murdoch had told him the Sun newspaper would abandon Labour because the Conservatives would be better economic managers. During the Labour conference a week earlier the paper declared “Labour’s lost it”. So while Brooks put it in an unsophisticated way, she was right: professionally they were now “in this together”.
The uncovering of this bare little text message was the fruit of Cameron’s five hours of testimony to the Leveson inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal last week.
The message has been reported in headlines around the world, from the Huffington Post to the Calcutta Telegraph. It is, according to the Daily Mail, “explosive”, “cringe worthy”, “astonishing” and “incredibly embarrassing”.
But embarrassing for who, exactly? Cameron was the one giving testimony, not Brooks. It’s hard to see why an opposition leader securing the support of a media proprietor for an upcoming election should be cringe worthy. That is his job – to gather support where he can.
The Leveson inquiry started in November with Hugh Grant and the parents of the murdered school girl Milly Dowler. Back then, its themes were criminality and police corruption. It was surrounded by arrests and resignations and Scotland Yard. All serious stuff.
But six months later, what was a serious inquiry has devolved into a strange sort of puritanism. Participants are being judged against ethical rules unheard of before Leveson convened. For a newspaper to back a political party is apparently a breach of these novel rules. And friendship between politician and proprietor is outrageous.
The phone-hacking affair no longer has anything to do with phone-hacking. It’s trying to make scandals out of the basic practices of representative democracy.
Politicians cultivate relationships with journalists. They have to, if they want to achieve their political and policy goals. That might seem distasteful. We all share a romantic ideal about the fourth estate being implacably at odds with the first estate. But let’s not be too delicate. Democracy is about coalition-building. Journalists and editors are stakeholders. A politician that does not make friends in the media will not be a very successful politician.
But we also shouldn’t pretend Cameron’s fortunes were solely in the capricious hands of media moguls. Yes, only Brooks’s side of the SMS conversation has been released. But its clear impression is of a proprietor sucking up to an opposition leader – not, as those who imagine Rupert Murdoch has an iron-grip on politics expect, an opposition leader coming cap in hand to a proprietor.
So an ambitious Cameron convinced the Sun to editorialise in favour of his party in 2009. It’s questionable how big a coup this really was. Does anyone genuinely think Gordon Brown could have held on if he’d only had the Sun’s support? Labour had been in power for 12 years. Brown was astonishingly unpopular. And the British economy had collapsed. Tabloids have always chased popular sentiment more than they’ve led it.
In Australia, the Finkelstein Inquiry into media regulation flirted with deeper questions about the functioning of democracy. But, ultimately, Ray Finkelstein had a limited brief. His final report charged towards a single, digestible proposal for a new regulatory body. He steered clear of uncomfortable philosophical questions.
By contrast, the Leveson Inquiry lacks Finkelstein’s modesty. Lord Justice Leveson’s team has now grilled four Prime Ministers and nearly 20 cabinet ministers. They’ve interrogated them about press strategy and public relations, the use of anonymity and favouritism, leaks and friendships.
It’s Cameron’s fault. The phone-hacking was the scandal. But Cameron was embarrassed by having hired Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor. So he gave Leveson virtually unlimited terms of reference. One of his tasks is to make recommendations concerning “the future conduct of relations between politicians and the press”, which would seem to encompass every aspect of political and government communication.
Future historians will no doubt appreciate Leveson’s forensic accounting of who had lunch with who. But it seems more designed to appeal to the coterie of media critics sure that democracy is on the slide.
There’s an absurdity that the Finkelstein and Leveson inquiries share. They both held court on the nature of democratic politics, and they were both conducted by a senior judge whose touted virtue is that they are independent and unaccountable – that is, completely undemocratic.
That Brooks’s artless text message is now seen as a scandal illustrates how farcical the Leveson circus has become.