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Leader: Even now, the Tories are putting News Corp interests first

When David Cameron became Prime Minister, he vowed to hold his government to a higher standard than its predecessors. In the foreword to the 2010 Ministerial Code, recognising that his administration had a “particular and historic responsi­bility to rebuild confidence in our political system”, Mr Cameron promised that ministers would be “transparent about what [they] do and how [they] do it” and “above improper influence.”

Yet now, confronted by evidence that one of his ministers, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, may have breached the code, he has entirely failed to meet these laudable commitments. Rather than ordering a probe by the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Alex Allan, to establish whether Mr Hunt broke the code, he attempted to subcontract the task to the Leveson inquiry – an investigation, lest we forget, into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press, not of the cabinet. Given Mr Cameron’s initial reluctance to establish the inquiry, his suggestion that its remit should be so vastly expanded was flagrantly opportunistic.

The Prime Minister compounded this error by refusing to appear before parliament to explain his stance, relenting only when the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who has done much to improve ministerial accountability, ordered him to do so. Before this, in a shameful act of disregard for parliament, some Conservative ministers suggested that Mr Cameron’s remarks on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show were sufficient.

His stated reasons for rejecting an inquiry – that Mr Hunt did not break the Ministerial Code and that he will soon testify at the Leveson inquiry – do not bear scrutiny. First, there is much evidence that Mr Hunt did breach the code. On the evidence of the published emails, he was either unwilling or unable to prevent his office repeatedly leaking confidential information on the BSkyB bid to News Corporation. If the former, he violated his duty to act in a quasi-judicial role: to behave impartially and set aside all political considerations. If the latter, he proved incapable of handling the biggest single task facing his department and is similarly unfit for office.

Second, aside from the unsuitability of the Leveson inquiry to determine Mr Hunt’s fate, the Culture Secretary is not due to appear before the committee until the end of the month. It is wrong that the fate of a minister who, as polls show, has lost the confidence of the public should remain uncertain for so long. In the case of the former defence secretary Liam Fox, Mr Cameron rejected calls for an inquiry by the ministerial watchdog on the grounds that it would take too long. Yet now we are told that such an inquiry into Mr Hunt’s actions would be too rapid.

Mr Cameron’s reluctance to lose Mr Hunt from the cabinet is understandable. Personable, telegenic and socially liberal, he is the archetypal Cameroon and, until recently, was spoken of as a future party leader. But the Prime Minister cannot defend him so unreservedly and expect to retain the trust
of the voters. The suspicion naturally arises that Mr Hunt is being used as a firewall to protect his master. Indeed, were it not for the Culture Secretary’s travails, more attention would have been devoted to the revelation that Mr Cameron, contrary to his previous assertions, did discuss the BSkyB bid with James Murdoch at the home of the former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks on 23 December 2010.

The Prime Minister has conceded, on numerous occasions, that he grew too close to Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenants. But his actions in the past week suggest that, as Talleyrand remarked of the Bourbons, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It is entirely inadequate for him to remind voters that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also fell under the spell of the Murdoch empire. In promising to lead the “most open and transparent government in the world”, he vowed to be different. Yet even now, the Tories continue to put the interests of News Corporation before those of the public. The Conservative MPs on the media select committee voted unanimously to exclude the main criticisms of Rupert and James Murdoch from the body’s report on phone-hacking.

With his party’s poll ratings plummeting, Mr Cameron desperately wants voters to focus on what he calls the more “serious” issues of the eurozone crisis and the national debt. It is the perception that this government is in hock to vested interests, however, that corrodes trust in our political class. There is no more serious issue. It is time Mr Cameron recognised as much and called Mr Hunt to account.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue