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Wednesday, July 20, 2011 

Can't we talk about something else? Oh.


Well, that's that then. Time to move on. The public are tired of the phone hacking scandal. There are far more important things to be discussing or ruminating over than the resignation of the two most senior policemen in the land due to their associations with former News International employees and their failure the first time round to properly investigate suspected wrongdoing. Now that the Murdoch circus has packed up and left, it's time to let the judicial inquiry and all the other assorted investigations take place and focus on those other important things, like bankers shockingly continuing to pay themselves bonuses and the fact the economy's still in the toilet. All this has been distracting attention from the slow death of the Euro, and the equally slow death of hundreds of thousands in Somalia and Ethiopia from hunger, as the UK director of UNICEF said in full page adverts. It seems to be only us, the Great British Public, and our famed bottomless pockets that can save the day.

In fairness, it isn't just the Daily Mail (satirised mercilessly in today's Private Eye) and other organisations with their own dodgy dealings to hide, or those trying to take attention away from Dave and his catastrophic decision to hire Andy Coulson who want to end the saturation coverage of phone hacking; after all, I didn't really want to write too much about it this week either (so much for that), and arguably other news has been pushed down the agenda which otherwise would have been on the front pages. All the same though, there hasn't been a scandal or crisis quite like this for many years, encompassing not just favouritism and possibly corruption at the very highest levels of the Met, or the employment of someone who allegedly, and I stress, allegedly signed off on the bribing of police officers as the government's head of media. Add in the disgraceful invasions of privacy, the potential hindering of a police investigation into the disappearance of a teenage girl, the closure of one of the oldest newspapers in the country, the breaking of the Murdoch spell over our politicians and their calling (somewhat) to account in front of a parliamentary committee and it's difficult not to say the coverage has been mostly justified.

David Cameron then came to the Commons to make his emergency statement having spent the last two days in Africa getting as far away from this country and its little local difficulties as possible. We're told that Number 10 has been "fuming" at the "hysteria" in the press, and he came in with a strategy that was as simple as it was effective, if disengenuous. Set out perfectly reasonably the appointments to the judicial inquiry and the changes to its remit, all of which were incidentally welcome, even if going after the BBC is more than a bit of a red herring, deal with the unpleasantness of Ed Llewellyn telling John Yates not to brief him about phone hacking (imagine the justified outrage if he had done the opposite, he said), Neil Wallis's non-employment by the Conservative party (he merely provided some informal advice on a voluntary basis) and then finally sort-of apologise for employing Andy Coulson.

This was half an expression of regret, the not actual apology so beloved of Tony Blair when it came to the Iraq war. On numerous occasions the indication was he would say something approaching a mea culpa, then when it came down it he never said the hardest word itself. If it turned out that Andy Coulson had all along been lying to him, then and only then would it be the time for a "profound apology". Not resignation, as most would feel be appropriate, having given a government job to someone who'd bought police officers and helmed an office where criminal activities were endemic, he'd instead beg our forgiveness for his simple, bug-eyed naivety. Dave like so few of the rest of us continues to hang to the quaint notion of innocence until guilt has been proved, even if almost every single person other than the now chancellor and News International advised him that Coulson was bad news.

All this done, it was time to turn the tables. Regardless of what Ed Miliband asked, and he didn't help himself by slightly overreaching with his connection of Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation to Cameron's continued employment of Coulson, he was going to be the opposite of humble. No, Miliband was "hunting for feeble conspiracy theories". Whenever a politician starts invoking our tin-foil hat wearing friends, you ought to know they're hiding something or being customarily evasive. Never mind that not just News International but the Metropolitan police kept telling the Guardian their tenacity over phone hacking was down to the overactive imagination of Nick Davies and that it's ever so slightly suspicious and convenient that not a single NI executive had any idea what was going regardless of their day to day workings at the company, clearly the idea that this could go any further or that Cameron is up to his neck in it as well is crackers.

The other line of attack was to put all the blame on Labour for doing absolutely nothing during their time in office, or worse, Gordon Brown's cosying up to Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. It didn't matter that Brown did indeed want to set-up a judicial inquiry into phone hacking, as the record shows, regardless of his or his wife's friendship and slumbering with NI minions, only to be told that it would be impossible to report prior to the election and that the press would scream and point at how it was for political advantage over Cameron, as they would have done. It also didn't matter that regardless of what Labour did, whether it was employ Damian McBride who discussed potentially smearing Tories but never did (and that story was also the result of hacking Derek Draper's emails, not to mention McBride resigned immediately) or Alastair Campbell, who Cameron later said "falsified documents", presumably a reference to the dodgy dossier, they never brought someone with such a reputation as Coulson into a government job.

Enlivened by this, many Tories (with a few good honourable exceptions) then spent the rest of the session building on this assault, despite Cameron denouncing Miliband for his playing of the debate "for narrow political advantage". It was reminiscent of the bad old days when innumerable sycophants within New Labour asked planted, scripted questions, giving him the opportunity to denounce the Tories for everything they had ever done wrong at least five times a session. The execrable Louise Mensch denounced the partisanship of the "party of Damian McBride and Tom Baldwin". Sajid Javid managed to shoehorn in Brown's selling off of the country's gold at the bottom of the market. Nicky Morgan suggested Labour was also suffering from "collective amnesia", while Claire Perry mentioned today just happened to be the anniversary of the moon landing, "around which conspiracy theorists like to cluster".

On and on it went, while Labour MPs (and the Lib Dem Mike Hancock) tried and failed to get Cameron to either name the company that vetted Coulson when he hired him and also whether he had so much as mentioned the five letters "BSkyB" during any of his many meetings with News International. Cameron finally just sat down with an "urgh!", having been asked for the umpteenth time over the Sky bid. Just to lower the tone even further, Paul Uppal stood up and said "[O]ne thing that shames our democracy, though, is that there are elements in the House that seem to want to make political capital out of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone." Yes, how dare Ed Miliband want to get to the truth of what happened at News International when Andy Couslon was editing the paper in Brooks's absence, as the Dowler family had urged him to when they met him? Cameron responded, before somewhat covering himself, with "as someone said, I'm enjoying this". Margaret Thatcher said it in her last appearance to the Commons before she stood down as prime minister.

Miliband later took part in the debate and answered some of the accusations made against Tom Baldwin, whose line manager at the time of the alleged illegal accessing of the Conservative party accounts was none other than a certain Michael Gove. He also reminded those with short memories of Lord Ashcroft's failure to domicile himself in this country having promised William Hague he would, considering which they ought to "shut up". It was also obvious he said when challenged, that rather than meeting at Downing Street as Gordon Brown had with Rebekah Brooks six times a year, Cameron was seeing the Gorgon lookalike out in Oxfordshire and elsewhere. By then though everyone else had switched off, and slippery Dave, taking after Teflon Tony, had seen off any potential challenge to his authority.

As could have been expected, Cameron's failure to answer about BSkyB and Coulson's vetting has since been shown up as he did indeed have conversations with NI about the takeover bid, while his spin doctor only underwent the lowest level of vetting originally and then wasn't given security clearance similar to that of Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell once he entered government. Any suggestion though that anything was inappropriate about the former, or that Coulson couldn't be given access to full intelligence because of his past is completely wide of the mark, and are simply, conspiracy theories. Now perhaps we can finally return to those topics which really matt--, oh, everyone's gone on holiday.

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