For Murdoch and friends, sorry is the easiest word

For Rupert, Rebekah and David, contrition has finally arrived. But where's the shame?

Rupert Murdoch is very sorry. He's very sorry that he didn't know anything about what went on at his newspapers, which was wrong but not the fault of the people in charge of those newspapers, and he's very sorry that those people who were in charge, but didn't know anything about the wrong things that were happening, have now had to resign.

Rebekah Brooks is sorry. She's sorry that although she was in charge of newspapers for which despicable acts took place, she knew nothing about it, having been on holiday when many of these incidents took place, and not having known about it otherwise. She's sorry that she said that her organisation had paid police, when what she meant to say was that her organisation had not paid police. These things happen, when you're in a high pressure situation. You can end up saying things you didn't mean to say.

David Cameron is sorry. He's sorry that he gave someone a second chance. He's sorry that the second chance, which he gave someone, by giving them a second chance, didn't work out as well as he might have hoped. No-one warned him that by giving this someone a second chance, it might not be the best outcome in the history of the world, although some people say they did warn him, and that he must have either not even read those warnings, or not listened to them, or proceeded anyway.

Everyone's sorry. Everyone is sorry that what happened happened, and that even though they were in the kind of positions where you might expect them to know about what happened, they didn't know about what happened. No-one knew anything, and were quite right to dismiss all the investigative work on the phone hacking story as boring lefty troublemakers doing some yawnworthy tedium, until the tale about the hacking of a dead teenager's phone came out - at which point it actually mattered.

It mattered because the story went beyond the BBC, or the Guardian, or the usual suspects - it went everywhere, and wasn't going to go away. It wasn't just being read about by the kind of people who'd never buy your papers; it was being read about by exactly the kind of people who do buy your papers, and are disgusted with you for having run the kind of paper where this kind of thing happened. Then it mattered a lot.

Then, everyone who is now sorry was as shocked as everyone else. Imagine the shock. The surprise. Imagine not having known about anything, all that time. Imagine employing someone - giving them a second chance, if you want to use that phrase - who was rumoured to be involved in some dodgy dealing, and not having sat them down and forced them to tell you exactly what they knew and didn't know. Imagine that.

Would you feel sorry, or would there be another feeling running through you? Not sorry, but something else... shame. Shame that you should have known, but didn't know. Shame that you didn't ask the right questions of the right people. Shame that you didn't know where any of this information came from, and just paid people for it anyway. Shame that you were in charge, yet weren't in charge. Shame that you took the absolutely enormous salary, yet didn't know what you were doing, apparently.

Everyone's sorry, and everyone involved in this grubby mess hopes that a simple sorry will make everything all right again. Just a simple sorry, and hope that the fuss dies down, and then up pops the Sun on Sunday on August 7, or thereabouts, and it's the football season and there'll be a massive preview and free gifts and other lovely things for you to look at, and everyone will just shrug their shoulders and think, oh well, I suppose we'd better give them a second chance, hadn't we? It's important to give people second chances. And that will be that. Crisis averted. Ed Miliband foiled. Everything carries on, much as it did before.

Unless people aren't prepared to tolerate being fooled again. And unless people aren't prepared to think that a simple sorry will get Murdoch and friends out of this sorry mess.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.