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July 19, 2011 / ultrafox1963

Fifteen Days That Shook The World: Are There More Dramas To Come?

The revelation on 4 July that murdered Surrey schoolgirl Milly Dowler had her phone messages hacked in 2002 by agents from the News of the World, may turn out to be the most momentous event of the year.

More than two weeks on, the reverberations continue, and well beyond the UK.  Comparisons have been made – and not only from the left of the political spectrum – with the Profumo Affair and Watergate.  While the coalition government looks likely to survive, at least for now, at least one ministerial scalp could be claimed by the time the House of Commons reconvenes after its summer recess.

It was the tsunami of public revulsion, rather than a grand BBC/Guardian/”liberal” conspiracy, which forced the NotW’s advertisers to sever their ties and subsequently prompted the publication’s closure.  But if News International ever hoped that this dramatic action would be an adequate, let alone sufficient, response to the crisis, they were badly mistaken.

Further evidence emerged of the liaisons  between News International and the Metropolitan Police, and especially the transfer of personnel between the two organisations.  Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and his assistant John Yates were both compelled to resign their positions.  Their actions mirror those of several leading figures within News International who also found themselves engulfed in the mire of sleaze.

But if these individuals, however painfully reluctantly, have been forced into taking responsibility, should those of the third side of this fateful triangle – senior politicians – be allowed to escape from doing so?  David Cameron has had a less than comfortable fortnight and it has not gone unnoticed how few (if any) of his senior colleagues seem prepared to speak in his defence.

However Cameron is by no means the first Prime Minister to have established close links with Rupert Murdoch.  Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a particularly warm relationship with him, approving his takeover of the Times and Sunday Times in 1981, and being repaid with unwavering support by his media during the Falklands war, two general election campaigns, and numerous union disputes during her time of office.  More recently, Tony Blair, on becoming Labour Party leader, made significant changes to party policies, and even its constitution, in order (at least in part) to secure and retain Murdoch’s support.   While it has been widely suggested that politicians were unduly deferential towards the media tycoon, it should be also be noted that the last person to win a UK general election without his endorsement was Edward Heath – way back in 1970.

As with Gordon Brown during the global economic crash in 2007-08, Cameron now finds himself at the mercy of events over which he has little control.  The appointment of ex-NotW editor Andy Coulson as his communications director appears to have been a particularly serious misjudgment, whether it was made at the behest of Murdoch or – as Rebekah Brooks alleged this evening – his Chancellor George Osborne.

Although Cameron has claimed he was unaware of Coulson’s involvement in phone-hacking, other misdemeanours – such as the bullying of colleagues – were already in the public domain.  In normal circumstances they should have been enough to disqualify Coulson from any appointment to public office.  But with the prospect of power looming, and Coulson’s influence securing sympathetic media coverage,  Cameron turned a blind eye.

Extensive attempts were made by both the police and sections of the media to dismiss the issue of phone-hacking.  But a series of court cases and out-of-court settlements in which damages were paid to victims (in one case totalling £1m) ensured these efforts were thwarted, although while celebrities were perceived as the main targets the matter had little public resonance.  Only a handful of MPs and media outlets appeared willing to take things further.

The announcement from Mark Lewis, solicitor for the Dowler family, changed that perception completely.  A significant section of public opinion began to engage in the issue and maintain an almost-obsessive interest.  Their efforts have already contributed to the demise of the highest-selling English-language newspaper in the world, the termination of several high-profile careers, the destruction of Murdoch’s bid for completely control of BSkyB (which most media commentators assured us would be a mere formaility) and severe, potentially terminal, damage to the prestige and invincibility of the Murdoch empire.

And in a particularly poignant parallel to the Profumo case, one of the main figures, whistleblower Sean Hoare, has been found dead at his home.  Police (from the Hertfordshire force, rather than the discredited Met) are continuing their investigation into the cause of his death.

There have already been innumerable twists and turns in this saga.  Two elements – hitherto largely silent during the drama – may shape the next episode.  Can Cameron convince his party colleagues that his credibility and that of the government he leads will remain intact?  Even should he manage to do so, his LibDem coalition partners – previously among Murdoch’s more vociferous critics – may not be as acquiescent.

His powers of leadership will be put to the test in the coming days.  There is more than a possibility they could be found wanting.

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