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Rebekah Brooks once made me cry, but I can’t help liking her

The first time I met Rebekah Brooks, she reduced me to tears. It was after a Women in Journalism party that had lived down to all my worst expectations. At the centre of the drinks reception were two men - Les Hinton, in charge of News International at the time, and Tony Hall, then boss of BSkyB. The women circled outwards from these two in layers, in order of importance. Brooks was very close to Hinton. Behind her were section editors from the national papers; beyond them, columnists; and so on, in circles of declining power. Right at the edge of the party, trying to get a look-in, were freelancers hoping to make connections. It was a miserable event.

We repaired afterwards to the Groucho Club, where journalists rub shoulders with celebrities they later stitch up, a corrupt relationship that somehow seems to serve both sides. I cannot remember now what Rebekah and I argued about - it was late and the wine had been flowing - but I do remember that I and another guest ended up in tears. The next day, when I arrived at work, I had an email from Rebekah, asking if I was OK. I realise that this is not an overwhelming weight of evidence but the wicked witch does have a heart.

I never met Rupert Murdoch. I am probably the only journalist ever to work for him who has turned down an invitation to have lunch with him. So I am not trying to curry favour when I say that he is (or was, until recently) a good newspaper proprietor. Not once in a decade, including a couple of years as comment editor, was I influenced in what I wrote for the Times or what I commissioned. I never recognise the organisation that I worked for in the hysterical coverage about the "Murdoch press" in the left-wing media.

Wapping mess

There wasn't a lot of crossover between Murdoch titles. Although the papers were housed together in Wapping, we were in different buildings and rarely saw journalists from the other papers. Presumably, News of the World news editors ate in the same canteen as us, but as I didn't know them I wouldn't have recognised them. Relationships at Westminster between political editors from all the papers - and between political editors and politicians - were far closer than daily relations between Times journalists and staff on the Sun, News of the World or the Sunday Times.

We were separate entities. The culture and ethics of the papers were determined by their editors, not by News International. Having worked under three different Times editors, I saw the culture change decisively with each new arrival. It takes a while: old ways remain embedded for a time under new editors and often they have to move the people on to change the paper, which can be hard.

This brings me back to Brooks. I like her. I always found her perfectly straightforward and, for somebody in her position, surprisingly forthcoming, even a little naive. I don't find it unthinkable that she did not know the methods that her journalists were using to get stories. Sometimes, when a culture is embedded in an organisation, you just don't ask, perhaps because you don't want to know. And if the practices were already entrenched by the time Brooks became editor, there would have been no reason for senior staff to check them with her. Payments are often authorised by managing editors and not by editors.

It is very hard, however, to believe that the editor didn't know about any of it: even the defence that Brooks had come up through the features side of the paper and did not understand the methods used in the newsroom is questionable, as the former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan has suggested that the features desk used hacking methods, too.

Rough justice

The point is "not asking". I have racked my brains about whether I was aware that journalists at News International or other titles across Fleet Street used illegal methods such as phone-hacking or data breaches to get stories. The answer is that I didn't know - but I suspected it (though not at the Times). I think we all suspected it but assumed that it stopped at celebrities and politicians. That makes all of us who worked in journalism in the past two decades complicit, I suppose, even if it didn't happen on our own papers.

That, of course, makes Brooks complicit even if she didn't know exactly what was going on. Those at the top of News International, swallowed up in this vast, swirling story, are engaged in a confused defiance, gasping at what they view as the inaccuracy of many of the stories in the papers and the lynch-mob mentality focusing on Brooks. It isn't fair, they say - and this is probably true.

Yet that isn't the point. The media are not "fair", and usually newspapers defend this as a form of rough justice. What is clear is that Brooks cannot fight the tide of allegations while remaining in post. It is unreasonable of Murdoch to expect her to. She should be put on gardening leave or moved elsewhere in the organisation while News International takes a cool look at the wave of allegations and responds.

Gordon and Sarah Brown, for example, have no evidence that their son's private medical records were illicitly obtained by the Sun. What they have been complaining about is press intrusion. Didn't we already know that the press is intrusive? The public - and the public inquiries - will need to decide what is acceptable. The Sunday Times appears to have "blagged" information that might genuinely have been in the public interest.

As each new attack comes, however, there has been no clear public response from the top of News International: no statements, no explanations, no answers. It is Brooks or his papers: Murdoch has to choose.

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.