LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister David Cameron faced a televised grilling over the nature of his relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s press group on Thursday at an inquiry that has turned into a slow-motion political disaster for the British leader.
Cameron’s day-long appearance at the Leveson Inquiry comes after months of embarrassing revelations on his friendships with people at the heart of Murdoch’s News Corp including two former newspaper editors now facing criminal charges.
Cameron’s judgment has also come under attack over his backing for a minister accused of discreetly championing News Corp’s bid for full ownership of pay-TV firm BSkyB at a time when he was supposed to be an impartial overseer.
One of the themes now dominating the inquiry is a widely held view that generations of British politicians cultivated powerful media figures, especially Rupert Murdoch, in a tacit agreement to look after each other’s interests.
“The idea of overt deals is nonsense. I also don’t believe in this theory that was sort of a nod and a wink and some sort of covert agreement,” Cameron told the inquiry.
Cameron set up the inquiry into media standards himself last year after a phone-hacking scandal erupted at one of Murdoch’s British tabloids, but he has found himself increasingly under its glare.
His decision to agree to spend a whole working day at Leveson, at a time when he is under intense pressure over an economic recession, the euro zone crisis and other pressing matters, is a measure of how much the fallout from the Murdoch saga is dogging his premiership.
He was well prepared and gave evidence fluently. He clasped his hands and frowned in concentration as he listened to questions from lawyer Robert Jay, and when speaking jabbed his hands left and right for emphasis.
It contrasted with his usually relaxed, spontaneous style, reflecting the pressure on the prime minister to appear statesmanlike and authoritative.
“I think this relationship (between politicians and journalists) has been going wrong for, you know, it’s never been perfect. There have always been problems. You can point to examples of Churchill putting Beaverbrook as a minister,” Cameron said.
In what many will consider a flattering comparison, Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill controversially appointed press baron Lord Beaverbrook to his cabinet in 1940.
Cameron’s own dangerous liaisons include a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Murdoch and former executive at his British business, and the hiring of Andy Coulson, also a Murdoch ex-editor, as his trusted spokesman.
Cameron used to sign his frequent text messages to Brooks with an affectionate “LOL”, which he thought stood for “lots of love”, according to Brooks.
He hired Coulson in 2007, a few months after he resigned as editor of the News of the World because one of the Sunday newspaper’s reporters was jailed for hacking into the phones of close aides of members of the royal family.
The revelation last year that News of the World reporters had hacked into many other phones over the years, including that of a murdered schoolgirl, prompted Murdoch to abruptly shut down the paper last July and set off the chain of events leading to Cameron’s Thursday appearance at Leveson.
Cameron set up the inquiry to fend off accusations from the Labour opposition that he was fearful of holding the Murdoch press to account because he valued its support.
But the decision to set up Leveson and give it a broad remit to question not only journalists but also policemen and politicians has come back to haunt Cameron.
The prime minister has been embarrassed by his association with the so-called “Chipping Norton” set, a high-powered social scene centered around the picturesque market town in Oxfordshire. Cameron, Brooks and Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth were among the high-flying friends with luxurious country homes in the area.
Brooks and her husband Charlie, an erstwhile horse-riding partner of Cameron, have been charged with perverting the course of justice by allegedly hiding evidence from police investigating phone-hacking.
Coulson has been charged with perjury over evidence he gave during a court case related to the phone-hacking affair.
For his part, Cameron is under fire for shielding Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative minister, who is accused by Labour of being far too helpful to News Corp while in charge of ruling on the company’s bid for BSkyB.
(Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Li-Mei Hoang; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Will Waterman)
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