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A corrupting cosiness

For a generation, the political elite has sought the patronage of Murdoch – and the hacking scandal

Scandals have symmetry, like spiders' webs. The Prime Minister employed Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, to be his chief media strategist. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, hired Neil Wallis, Coulson's former deputy, to be a media relations adviser. Coulson, while working for David Cameron in opposition, also sought advice from Wallis.

The two journalists in that précis have now been arrested in connection with phone-hacking, but not charged. The police chief has resigned. The Prime Minister clearly feels he has little, if anything, to regret. Perhaps he doesn't; not yet.

Looking at those relationships through the prism of News International's institutional disgrace, they seem sinister and brazen. But the truly remarkable thing is how routine they must have felt at the time. George Osborne, Cameron's closest ally, presents to the court of the Tory leader an emissary from the world's most powerful media empire. Of course he is hired. Britain's most senior police officer needs some public relations advice. Where else to shop but the ranks of News International veterans? That is how power works in Britain, or how it worked.

Downing Street rejects any equivalence in the two cases. The police had a professional duty to find out the truth about phone-hacking, say No 10 aides, while the leader of the Conservative Party did not. By implication, if it is ever proved that Wallis and Coulson were complicit in nefarious practices, Stephenson and his deputy, John Yates, will be guilty of bad policing, whereas Cameron will merely have been the victim of deception.
That is a nice distinction, and bogus. Senior Met officers and Cameron are charged with failure to see that the News of the World was institutionally tainted. They are using the same defence. There was no reason, they say, to disbelieve assurances that the phone-hacking case was solved in 2007, when Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective who intercepted royal voicemail messages, and Clive Goodman, the correspondent who commissioned the deed, were jailed. But those assurances came from News International, while the evidence, thousands of pages of Mulcaire's notes, gathered dust in police storerooms. To any dispassionate eye, that looks like a cover-up.

In September 2009, the Guardian exploded the credibility of the lone "rogue reporter" defence with a series of new hacking allegations. Still No 10 and Scotland Yard were not provoked to review News International's testimony. That is not casual foolishness. It takes effort to ignore the truth so rigorously.

The ability to induce such wilful blindness is the essence of the power Rupert Murdoch has wielded over British public life. It began with the acquisition of the News of the World in 1969 and grew exponentially after further press acquisitions - the Sun, the Times and Sunday Times, the short-lived Today - and expansion into broadcasting in the 1990s. It peaked with the seamless social integration of David Cameron, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. The death knell sounded on 4 July 2011.

On that day, the country learned that the News of the World had hacked into voicemail messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered schoolgirl. The effect on the political establishment was like a sewer bursting in a five-star hotel. At some level everyone had known that beneath the polished marble tiles underfoot lay pipes channelling rancid effluent, but no one had wanted to dwell on the fact. Suddenly, the stinking contents were spewing out all over the lobby.

Comparison with the financial crisis is irresistible, with News International, and its parent company News Corp, playing a role in politics and the media analogous to that played by the City of London in finance and the economy. Both were freed from regulatory restraint as part of Margaret Thatcher's ideological drive to unleash buccaneering capitalist vigour. The effect was not all negative. Only the most dogmatic of Murdoch's critics deny that his investment and innovation shook the British media out of a complacent torpor.

But politicians lost control of the forces they had released. In the case of New Labour, con­trol was surrendered. As chancellor, Gordon Brown was so dependent on the revenues generated by the City that he allowed bankers to dictate the terms of their trade. It became politically taboo to discuss regulation for fear of being cast as the enemy of enterprise. Something equivalent happened in relation to Murdoch. News International was perceived as having the power to anoint prime ministers. Writing on 18 July this year, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, described a kind of thraldom: "Gordon Brown saw the cultivation of Murdoch as the first primary he had to win to gain the Labour leadership."

The influence was felt in every department. One senior adviser who worked across Whitehall in the Labour government described to me recently how Rebekah Brooks would pester ministers over the smallest detail of policies in which she took an interest. "She expected cabinet ministers to bend to her will."

Like condemnation of City excess before the crash, attacks on Murdoch's influence before the current crisis were the hobby of a liberal-left cultural minority. Now the News International bubble has also burst. Phone-hacking, blagging and other shabby practices were the sub-prime end of journalism and it turned out the News of the World had much more of it on the balance sheet than previously disclosed. All of News International's contacts with politicians and financial arrangements with police officers, which had once looked like normal parts of the system, suddenly became toxic. Trust between all the players broke down. It is a public relations crunch.

The impact of phone-hacking on most people's lives is much less painful than the recession brought on by financial meltdown. MPs say the economy and immigration are still the two biggest concerns on the doorstep, just as they were before the last election. Opinion polls suggest phone-hacking has had scant impact on immediate voting intentions. Perhaps it isn't surprising. Despite Labour agitation over the Cameron-Coulson issue, the Prime Minister's biggest sin is to have perpetuated a corrupting cosiness with News International that began under previous administrations. Inside parliament there is agreement that Ed Miliband has nabbed the initiative on the crisis. Outside Westminster, the only certain outcome will be more cynicism about politics.

But in that climate Cameron is still more vulnerable than his rivals. The phone-hacking story has involved two kinds of revelations - hard and soft. The hard ones are allegations of criminal activity or egregious impropriety: hacking phones, paying police officers. Soft ones cover the wider cultural apparatus of establishment intimacies: champagne-drenched summer parties; walks in the Oxfordshire countryside; sausage rolls shared at Christmas picnics between the Cameron and Brooks families in Chipping Norton.

Those soft revelations hurt Cameron by reinforcing the impression that he is a visitor from another world, on nodding terms only with the lives of ordinary voters. The Conservatives are well aware of how damaging that image can be. According to detailed polling carried out earlier this year by the Tory financier Lord Ashcroft, it was a major factor in the party's failure to win a parliamentary majority.

Ashcroft paid particular attention to people he labelled "considerers" - those who almost voted Conservative in 2010 but didn't. In focus groups, they revealed deep reservations about the Tories' perceived detachment from everyday concerns. Comments included: "They're a bunch of public schoolboys"; "The Conservatives stand more for top earners and the higher classes" and, of Cameron specifically, "he tries to show he's one of us, but he's not".

It is easy to see how the images around the phone-hacking scandal will exacerbate those doubts. They are undoing many years of
effort by Cameron and his closest advisers. The Prime Minister studiously avoids being photographed in black tie or with a champagne flute in hand. There is some irony here. Coulson, born in Essex and educated at the local comprehensive school, was considered so vital to the Cameron communications operation precisely because of his grasp of "kitchen-table issues" - something felt to be lacking in a high-born Etonian groomed for power from childhood.

Cameron's background is not necessarily an electoral liability. British voters are less animated by class rage than some Labour activists think they ought to be. But the focus of political debate in the phone-hacking saga falls on Cameron's character and lifestyle more than any previous political story. He has invited the public to admire his credentials as a decent chap in giving Coulson a "second chance" after his resignation from the News of the World. It is a moment similar to Tony Blair's insistence, when confronted with suggestions that Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone's donation to the Labour Party had bought a change in policy, that he was a "pretty straight kind of guy".

Cameron doesn't start with the same store of political capital that Blair enjoyed in 1997. He also struggles with contrition where his own pet projects - or people - are concerned. He readily apologises for other ministers' policies. He has made a virtue of the U-turn as evidence of openness and flexibility. But he is stubborn and sensitive to lèse majesté, taking criticism only from members of his innermost circle. Journalists who repeat questions when they feel the original answers are incomplete are shown flashes of pink-cheeked irritation. The same tetchy, patronising impatience emerges from time to time in parliament.

One senior civil servant who has observed Cameron work at close range sees a complacency in the Prime Minister's handling of phone-hacking born of astounding levels of self-confidence: "He simply doesn't have the fear. He needs to have a bit more fear." By contrast, lesser mortals in Downing Street have been panicking.

So far, the political damage from phone-hacking has been minor, certainly when compared with the body count in the media and the police. A 168-year-old newspaper has died. News International executives and Scotland Yard officers have resigned. Perhaps that distribution of casualties reflects the scale of offence. The alleged crimes were committed on behalf of newspapers and without proper investigation by the Met. The
politicians' role was at one remove, part of the culture in which a corrupt and arrogant organisation could feel itself above the law.

Resignations follow hard revelations. What about the soft ones? Over the past two weeks the nation has witnessed the live dissection of a charmed establishment. We have peered through the gates at the beau monde of British power, at a place where party allegiance is less important than proximity to the media baron and his lieutenants. This is control exercised away from parliamentary debate, shared like canapés on manicured lawns, or at weekend country retreats, or over cocktails on billionaires' yachts. What does exposure to that ancien régime spectacle do to public confidence in politics? Where, in that picture, is accountability to the electorate?

That is where the long-term damage from phone-hacking will be felt. Britain is suffering from a deep crisis of political representation. It started with the banking crisis, when global finance held national politics to ransom. It was accelerated by the MPs' expenses scandal, when parliamentarians were exposed holding the electorate in contempt. Now, it has been entrenched with a scandal that exposes how influence really works in Britain. Ordinary voters who want a say in the way things are run must get to the back of the queue behind billionaire moguls and their children.

That process laid bare must damage the prime minister. The question the electorate asks of any leader is: "Whom do you ultimately serve?" The answer, implicit in everything we have recently learned about the way David Cameron does business, would appear to be: "Not you, ordinary Britain. Not you."

Rafael Behr is the chief political commentator for the New Statesman

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman