David Cameron’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday has been eagerly anticipated. Since November, the inquiry into press ethics has been hearing from journalists, politicians, celebrities, civil servants and ordinary people caught up in the news. The inquiry was set up to come to grips with the failure of press self-regulation in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, and the appearance of the Prime Minister represented what some commentators referred to as a ‘season finale.’
Cameron’s stint before Lord Justice Leveson came with high expectations, not least because the PM had so many questions to answer about his own place in the unfolding drama. These questions included ones about his cosy relationship to News International executives; his appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary; and the decision to give Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt – a known Murdoch supporter – the responsibility for overseeing the controversial BskyB bid.
But to those hoping for a prime ministerial meltdown, new juicy scandals or admissions of guilt or impropriety, his appearance was a disappointment. Cameron emerged largely unscathed, ending his five-hour shift with a joke about child abandonment. Towards the end, Lord Justice Leveson’s tone seemed to shift from rigorous inquisition to reverential banter. As Twitter observer TigerTiger439 wrote, ‘DC has that same look of relief on his face as a schoolboy told he can go home early because of the snow. He’s got off lightly.’
To insiders, the most damaging revelation came in the form of a text to the Prime Minister from Rebekah Brooks, the former Head of News Corp’s British newspapers who now faces charges of perverting the course of justice. In the text, the News Corp executive – a close friend of the Camerons – offered to discuss a troublesome Times article ‘over country supper soon’ and further wrote: ‘I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!’
Much has been made of the text and its revelations about the insider culture of political elites. Though it speaks volumes about machinations in the Westminster Bubble, it is also unsurprising. If it reveals any deeper truths, these do not necessarily have anything to do with David Cameron or Rebekah Wade as individuals, but rather with the emerging contours of a political system which is dominated by a small minority of slick assembly line products. In his book, Political Communication and Social Theory, Aeron Davis described Cameron as the personification of a new generation of professionalised politicians who have been raised to lead from the inside. Among the younger generation of cabinet members, half took Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford; more than half worked as researchers or policy advisers, and half have been journalists.
The younger generation of politicians have had precious little glimpse of life outside politics, as conceived in elite educational institutions, think tanks and cabinet offices. They excel in managing media appearances and maintaining good relations with journalists, but their political views have little bearing on life experience, according to Davis’ research.
It is therefore little wonder that David Cameron, as the star product of this machinery, performed well under the pressure of the Leveson Inquiry. His appearance was polished and rehearsed. He showed great ease and comfort with answering abstract questions about the relationship between media and politicians.
‘The relationship has been too close, and we need to get it on a better footing,’ Cameron commented.
Though he was relaxed and confident in the broader and more abstract discussions of the relationship between media and politicians, he seemed physically uncomfortable when the specifics of his friendship with Rebekah Brooks were raised.
‘You have to take care when you have personal friendships, but that can be done, and I like to think I have done that,’ he said.
This, however, is in fact where he did take a wrong turn. When Brooks wrote that she would be ‘rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together,’ she highlighted exactly why citizens are increasingly cynical about politics. For the new generation of professionalised political insiders, the walls between politics and the press have crumbled and they’re ‘in this together,’ personally, professionally and politically. It confirmed suspicions that for the likes of Cameron and Brooks, favourable media coverage deals are sealed over intimate country suppers.
This, however, does not mean that Cameron is involved in any sinister conspiracy. More than anything, his appearance showed that the Prime Minister is a slick assembly line product of the Westminster Bubble’s politician-journalist nexus. He is the symptom, rather than the cause of a broader problem, and until that problem is addressed, there is little room for change.