Prime Minister takes the stand at Leveson Inquiry

David Cameron appeared before a judge yesterday to explain his relationship with a controversial media empire. It was a nervous moment for the British PM.

Yesterday, an extraordinary political event took place in Britain as Prime Minister David Cameron appeared in court to give evidence in front of Lord Justice Brian Leveson – who is investigating the state of the media in the UK.

The courtroom was packed with journalists, crowding in to see the elected leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries arrive to be grilled by Leveson’s lawyer, Robert Jay QC.

Officially, the purpose of the court appearance was for Cameron to give his expert opinion on some of the tough policy issues with which Leveson has been forced to grapple.

But the Prime Minister looked nervous as he entered the witness stand. He knew that at some point, the questions from the mild-mannered Robert Jay would get personal; that the focus would shift from politics in general to him, David Cameron, in particular.

Why? Because before the 2010 general election which brought him and the Conservative Party to power, Cameron allowed himself to get uncomfortably close to executives from the News Corp media empire, which owns Britain’s most popular – and powerful – newspapers.

Then, in 2011, News Corp was caught in a huge scandal over illegal newsgathering techniques. The Prime Minister’s former friends are in disgrace.

Now, Cameron’s political enemies want to prove that he went too far: that he allowed News Corp to influence him (and to influence Conservative policy) in return for the company’s valuable support in the 2010 election. They hoped that evidence from yesterday’s court appearance might destroy the Prime Minister’s reputation once and for all.

There was at least one moment when Cameron will have feared the worst: Leveson had obtained an embarrassing text message sent from News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks to Cameron’s phone. ‘I am so rooting for you tomorrow,’ she wrote, referring to the 2009 Conservative Party Conference. ‘Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!’ She continued: ‘we’re so in this together!’ That, Cameron knew, would be the quote for the next day’s front pages.

Storm in a teacup?

Critics have seized on this message as evidence of an improper relationship between Cameron and Brooks – an insight into a cosy world of chatty texts and ‘country suppers’ where secret political deals were stitched up between politicians and media tycoons.

But Cameron’s allies say the text just proves how much fuss is being made over nothing. Cameron and Brooks were neighbours and friends, who shared political views. There is nothing sinister about that.

And while political hacks in Britain obsess over text messages from three years ago, Cameron is trying to fend off the worst economic crisis in memory. This inquiry, Conservatives conclude, is a useless waste of time.

You Decide

  1. Does the Leveson Inquiry matter?
  2. Do you think there is anything improper in Cameron’s relationship to News Corp executives?

Activities

  1. Some people think prime ministers should not be friends with journalists and media execs. If you could pick five friends for a national leader, what professions would you want them to have?
  2. Read the full text of Rebekah Brooks’ text to David Cameron (see Become an Expert online) and compose an imagined response.

Some People Say...

“The Leveson Inquiry is only interesting for journalists.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This does all seem like a lot of fuss over nothing!
It’s probably more important than it looks. What Leveson is really about is freedom.
Say what?
At one level, the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry will decide how newspapers are regulated in Britain – so it matters for press freedom. But it goes deeper than that.
How?
Leveson must decide how a free press can operate within a free country. The real fear is that close ties between politicians and media tycoons could harm or even destroy democracy. Power is meant to belong to voters – not to billionaires who own newspapers and use them to gain undue influence with politicians. Some people fear that is what happened here.

Word Watch

News Corp
Owned by controversial Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, News Corp is the company behind The Sun and The Times, Britain’s most popular newspapers in the tabloid and broadsheet categories respectively. The Sun switched its allegiance from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party before the 2010 general election, gaining Cameron some crucial extra political support.
In disgrace
The two executives closest to Cameron were Andy Coulson, who briefly worked as communications director for the Conservative Party, and Rebekah Brooks, who is married to one of David Cameron’s old school friends. Both have since been arrested and charged in connection with illegal phone hacking that took place at a News Corp paper.
Yes he Cam!
The pun is a reference to the campaign slogan of US President Barack Obama: ‘yes we can!’
Worst economic crisis in memory
Even as Cameron was giving evidence, news was spreading that bond yields in Spain were approaching critical levels. In other words: the European economy could collapse at any moment.

Subjects

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