Andy Coulson’s arrest for alleged perjury in the Tommy Sheridan trial isn’t just an embarrassment for Cameron. It raises a much wider and more difficult issue: how can a deeply insidious, unhealthy and toxic relationship between politicians and media proprietors – specifically the Tories (Thatcher), New Labour (Blair), the Tories again (Cameron) and Murdoch – be prevented from developing to the point where it contaminates politics and secretly corrupts the whole democratic process?
Of course it is routinely denied by the politicians. Blair at the Leveson inquiry stated there was no compact, express or implicit, between him and Rupert Murdoch – another of his frequent evasions of the truth which, even if not overtly lying, is deliberately misleading. There was no ‘compact’, nothing as naive as evidence that could be uncovered and used against them, but unquestionably there was a clear understanding between them which significantly affected policy in a manner kept hidden from scrutiny. The same applied in the case of Thatcher over the takeover of The Times and in the case of Cameron over BSkyB.
The importance of Coulson’s arrest is that it shines a light on political leaders’ irresistible urge to cultivate such relationships even when all the lights are flashing red. Long before the election it strained credulity that thedre was only one rogue reporter guilty of hacking at News International. Indeed the DCMS Select Committee concluded in February 2010 that it was “inconceivable” that no-one apart from Paul Goodman was aware of phone-hacking at the News of the World.
Yet Cameron 3 months later, with eyes wide shut, appointed Coulson to No.10 with the mock heroic claim that he believed in giving people a second chance. The real reason of course was that, like bees to the honey, he couldn’t resist tryijng to extract every last morsel of political gain out of a relationship already septic, even though it meant dismissing every ethical warning shouting at him.
The irony in all this is that, contrary to party leaders’ obsession with the media because of its supposed political influence, it is tycoons like Murdoch who follow rather than lead political sentiment and then plump for whoever they think most likely to win and then seek to do a deal in advance that will best advance their own interests. That is exactly what Murdoch did in September 2009 in telling Cameron his papers would support the Tories at the coming election, with the takeover of BSkyB as the understanding between them.
A strong political leader would resist these under-the-table deals, not just as being ethically corrupt, but also as being promoted by the press which always grossly exaggerates its own importance. But alas there haven’t been any such leaders in Britain for a very long time. Given how malleable political leaders are regularly shown to be at the first whiff of press grapeshot, the only defence against subversion of the political process is total transparency. All contacts between politicians and the press should be publicly recorded since Leveson has amply revealed there is a shadow world of decision-making, crucial to the public interest, about which the public at present knows nothing.