Cameron's friendships are the problem, says Mehdi Hasan

When will the PM distance himself from the toxic trio of Murdoch, Coulson and Brooks?

One particular line stood out to me in Cameron's remarks on phone-hacking this morning, when the Prime Minister was asked whether he was still friends with his former communications director, and the ex-News of the World (NoW) editor, Andy Coulson:

He became a friend and is a friend

For me, this goes to the heart of the issue. This isn't just about the pernicious influence that the Murdoch-owned media have long exercised over British politics; nor is it just the latest example of another British prime minister - after Messrs Blair and Brown - bowing and scraping before the Sun King. Cameron's relationship with those around Murdoch was a close and personal one; it was one of friendship. And it is this friendship that has clouded his judgement and put him on the backfoot this week.

As Peter Oborne, the pro-Cameron commentator, pointed out in his brilliant Telegraph piece earlier this week:

Mr Cameron allowed himself to be drawn into a social coterie in which no respectable person, let alone a British prime minister, should be seen dead.

It was called the Chipping Norton set, an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners, located in and around the Prime Minister's Oxfordshire constituency. Brooks and her husband, the former racing trainer Charlie Brooks, live in a house scarcely a mile from David and Samantha Cameron's constituency home. The two couples meet frequently, and have continued to do so long after the phone hacking scandal became well known.

Is it any wonder then that the Prime Minister would only say that he "would have taken" Rebekah Brooks's resignation while refusing to join the explicit calls for her to go? Most newspapers, commentators and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, have recognized that her position is untenable and that the NoW staff have been sacrificed by the Murdochs in a desperate and outrageous attempt to save Brooks.

I'm surprised that more hasn't been made of Cameron's dinner with Brooks, at the latter's Oxfordshire home (half a mile away from the PM's!), over the Christmas holidays. When Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, tried to get hold of more details about the dinner and what was discussed, he was rebuffed at every turn by Downing Street officials.

Katz wrote, back in February:

For more than two weeks the Guardian has been trying to establish a few details about an evening Cameron spent at the Oxfordshire home of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, during the Christmas holidays. Here's what the most open government in the world told us: first, No 10 categorically denied the PM had visited Brooks on Christmas day itself; then, when we asked instead if the PM had been entertained chez Brooks over the Christmas period it declined to confirm or deny.

Later Downing Street elaborated on its position, pointing out that Brooks was a constituent of Cameron's and, in any case, "the prime minister regularly meets newspaper executives from lots of different companies". But still No 10 refused to provide a date, or even confirm whether the dinner took place.

When it emerged that James Murdoch was at the dinner too, Downing Street became fractionally more transparent: an unattributable source reassured lobby reporters that neither Rupert Murdoch's controversial takeover bid for Sky nor the phone-hacking scandal had been discussed. So that's all right then.

I love this line from Cameron's spinners that he visited her at home because she happens to be a constituent of his. Hilarious. There are 78,220 voters in Witney - is the Prime Minister planning on visiting each and every one of them for dinner? Over Christmas?

It seems clear that the reason Cameron can't seem to cut Brooks or Coulson or News International loose is as personal as it is political.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland