LONDON — Even as his former communications chief Andy Coulson was being arrested this morning on allegations of phone hacking and corruption, British Prime Minister David Cameron held an unscheduled press conference this morning to get in front of the story.
The Prime Minister announced the creation of two inquiries into phone hacking. The first will be a judicial inquiry into why the original police investigation into phone hacking failed to uncover the extraordinary illegality at the heart of the saga. The judge in charge will have the power of subpoena and statements taken will be given under oath — any misstatements will lead to perjury charges.
The second will look at the "culture, ethics and practices of the British press." It is motivated by a proclamation of error rarely offered in public life here. Cameron told the assembled reporters that the relationship between politicians and the press had become too cozy. In their desire to curry favor with newspapers politicians had turned a blind eye to some editorial practices. That would have to stop.
To show that he means what he says, Cameron began putting distance between himself and his friendships with James Murdoch and his Oxfordshire neighbor, Murdoch's chief executive in Britain, Rebekah Brooks. Asked about Brook's continued status as head of News International, where she reports directly to Murdoch in the corporate hierarchy, the prime minister indirectly criticized Murdoch. Cameron said, "It has been reported that she offered her resignation over this and in this situation I would have taken it."
Instead of accepting Brooks' resignation, Murdoch chose to close down the News of the World, the country's biggest-selling newspaper, in an attempt to cauterize the damage. However the phone hacking scandal could well engulf the Murdoch media empire and could mire Cameron, as well.
(Read more on Murdoch: Closing of News of the World shocks Britain)
Throughout the press conference the prime minister was constantly being put on the defensive about his decision to hire Andy Coulson. "You screwed up" was the how the first question was put. (Pause for a second and imagine a member of the White House press corps asking President Barack Obama if he "screwed up" in making a personnel appointment.)
But that's a hindsight question. Since the dawn of the media age, tabloid journalists have had prominent roles as communications chiefs to prime ministers of both major parties. The reasons why lie in the special position tabloid newspapers have in British life.
Unlike the American version, British tabloid newspapers are real papers. Their editorial mix and style of presentation is different than the "broadsheet" or "quality" press but for the most part, the journalism they practice is legitimate, even if their methods are rough and — in the case of phone hacking — illegal.
The first real news story I did after moving here was to go "on the knocker" near an American air base in Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire. It was the spring of 1986. The U.S. had bombed the Gaddafi compound in Tripoli in response to a Libyan terrorist attack on U.S. military personnel in Germany and I was sent by USA Today to get reaction from the neighbors. Did they feel they had been put in harm's way from terrorists? Did they think the U.S. had overreacted? These were the questions I was supposed to ask.
I found myself in a quiet country lane with a couple of other reporters sent to ask the same thing. A British journalist and I started chatting. He was collegial and amiable and took me under his wing. We worked the doors together. He was a reporter from Britain's largest-selling daily paper, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid The Sun, and a thorough professional.
On other occasions, early on in my time I found myself working the streets with British reporters — in almost every case the ones who were most helpful were those who worked for the tabloids. They were old school — meaning no school. They did not go to university like the reporters on the fancy papers like The Guardian and The Times. They went straight into journalism and learned the job by doing the work. It's a dirty secret that deans of journalism schools won't tell you but reporting is a craft that can only be learned on the job. These guys had done that and they were good at it.
The fact that many came up the hard way meant they had an unerring sense of what ordinary people wanted to know. This knowledge could be shaped into the story and it explains in one way why tabloids continue to have such large readerships. Most of the people working for them come from the same backgrounds as their readers.
Of course, you can learn the wrong lessons. Emboldened by watching the Sun guy brazen his way into people's houses I carried on to a suburban compound where U.S. military families lived and knocked on doors. Presenting myself with a bluff assurance. It didn't work. At about the fifth house I visited I was told by an Air Force mechanic the local police had been called and were going to arrest me if I didn't get out of there. (His language wasn't that polite.)
There were things I didn't like about watching the tabloid hacks at work. They often clustered in packs and a group mentality took over. The natural cynicism that is part of being a journalist — you quickly realize virtually every one in public life is covering up something — when concentrated among four or five people could become very nasty. If the pack turned on someone it could be brutal. The journos themselves called it "monstering" and it really did turn people's lives into a nightmare.
Another landmark in my time here is when a colleague got turned over by the News of the World for having an affair with an extremely minor soap opera actress. Ordinary people get caught having extra-marital affairs all the time and really it is nobody's business but the husband and wife's. My colleague was about as ordinary as can be — but because the woman he was involved with had a minor part on TV his life was turned upside down. The pain and embarrassment his family suffered cannot be justified in any way.
That is the complicated nature of the tabloid beast. It offers real news, entertainment and salacious gossip mixed perfectly for its readership.
And that readership is enormous. No quality daily paper sells over a million copies in Britain ... Most of the tabloids do. They wield enormous political influence. If a tabloid chooses to monster a politician, as The Sun did during the 1992 general elction to Labour party leader Neil Kinnock, it can fairly say to have had a decisive role in the outcome. The morning after that election which Conservative John Major won, The Sun crowed in a banner headline, "It Was the Sun Wot Won It!!"
That is why in 1995, Tony Blair, freshly elected as leader of the Labour Party flew with his communications chief, ex-tabloid columnist Alastair Campbell, all the way to Australia to meet Rupert Murdoch and his top executives at their annual retreat. Blair was publicly seeking an endorsement — which he duly received in 1997. Labour would have won that election anyway — but Murdoch might feel justified in thinking that Blair owed him a favor. Certainly he had enough private dinners with Blair to make people think that.
To outsiders it seems that Cameron was merely carrying on the tradition of courting Murdoch and his family members as he developed close friendships with Murdoch's son, James, and Rebekah Brooks. But there are other newspaper groups with great influence as well. Cameron's statements this morning show that he wants to change that dynamic.
It is not cynicism but healthy scepticism to say, "Good luck with that, my man."
The proof will be in whether Murdoch's News Corp is allowed to buy the 61 percent of BSkyB — by revenue the largest broadcast business in Britain. A government decision to allow it to go ahead was expected today ... the decision has now been postponed until September.
Before then more revelations are expected on phone hacking.