Thursday, May 31, 2012 

The hunt will go on.

When the news came through last night that Andy Coulson had been charged with perjury, you can't help but suspect that Jeremy Hunt sighed with relief. The already slight chance that he would today be sacked or referred to the cabinet secretary/Sir Alex Allen following his evidence to the Leveson inquiry was almost entirely extinguished. After all, for two of David Cameron's acquaintances to be charged with a serious criminal offence is unfortunate; three begins to look like carelessness. Amusing as it is that Rebekah Brooks and her husband are facing the beak over perverting the course of justice, it's ever so slightly more damaging that Coulson was allegedly telling lies to a Scottish court while still Cameron's director of communications. Hunt therefore simply has to stay: not only is he continuing to provide cover for Cameron himself, whose judgement looks more and more suspect by the hour, he's also now doing much the same for George Osborne.

One of the key new pieces of information disclosed today was that within minutes of Robert Peston disclosing that Vince Cable had said he had declared war on Rupert Murdoch, Hunt was on the phone to James Murdoch in a call arranged earlier in the day, Hunt having already texted Murdoch junior to congratulate him on the European Commission saying the BSkyB bid could go ahead. Whether or not Murdoch had an inkling about what was coming or not isn't clear, although it's long been rumoured that the source of Peston's story was Will Lewis, formerly the Torygraph's editor-in-chief and shortly to join News Corp's Management and Standards Committee. No doubt having been subjected to a typically Murdochian haranguing from James, Hunt straight after emailed both Andy Coulson and George Osborne, saying he was "seriously worried we are going to screw this up". 48 minutes later, Osborne texted Hunt saying "I hope you like the solution!"

Hunt almost certainly did: he had after all written a memo complaining bitterly about how Cable had referred the BSkyB bid to Ofcom, and how James was, unusually for him, "pretty furious about it". Hunt's entire memo was just about as partisan as it gets, and expressed effective contempt for those opposed to the takeover. The original draft also gives the game away in two key ways: first in how he worries that it will put them in the wrong place politically, which he today claimed was a reference to the usual Conservative values of belief in free markets rather than how they were in danger of royally pissing off their friends at News International, and secondly in how it makes clear that News Corp viewed the takeover as effectively the move to Wapping all over again, giving them full spectrum dominance of the UK media. Why else would the takeover bid have been named Project Rubicon, otherwise?

Despite all this evidence of his own acute bias, including a phone call he made to Murdoch after being specifically advised that he should not make such contact with him, Hunt was duly passed the task of exercising "quasi-judicial" oversight on the takeover, a concept which prior to 2010 Hunt freely admits he had not encountered. Now the battle of contradictions begins: Hunt on the record stated that he could not have wished for a more diligent special adviser than Adam Smith, repeatedly praising him for his hard work, and said that he didn't believe there was a minister who had worked more closely with their SpAd. Smith knew what Hunt knew, and knew what he had to be careful about, and yet at the same time Fred Michel, News Corp's lobbyist, was bombarding Smith with emails and texts and getting plenty back in return. Hunt claims to have been shocked when the full extent of their contact was exposed and claimed he knew nothing of it, despite having been in personal contact with both Michel and James Murdoch during the same period, both of whom were saying much the same things to him as Michel had to Smith. Either he worked incredibly closely with Smith as he said, or he didn't. We didn't get a proper answer as to which it was.

Come the day after James Murdoch's evidence to Leveson, and it was clear someone was for the chop. It wasn't going to be Hunt though, oh no. Sure, he considered resigning himself, but "it wouldn't have been appropriate". Instead his incredibly close adviser had to sacrifice himself, despite the fact that Hunt accepts he has ultimate responsibility for his SpAd's actions and under the ministerial code that means that he should also go. David Cameron has for his part decided to completely ignore this aspect of the code, just as he decided it was Gus O'Donnell who should investigate Liam Fox over Adam Werritty, the result being an completely inadequate report, rather than commissioning a independent and in-depth investigation by the actual person employed to oversee the code.

Inept then doesn't even really begin to describe the coalition as it stands at the moment. At its best (bear with me) it's just cynical, whether it's Hunt claiming that he didn't know phone hacking was "a volcano waiting to erupt", or the Treasury today leaking midway through Hunt's evidence that the proposed cap on tax-deductible charity donations would be dropped, something that seems to have succeeded as the BBC are running it as their top story tonight. At worst, it's so stuck in the mire that all it can do is just hope that the focus shifts elsewhere, as a further eruption in the Eurozone might provide. In any other government Hunt would and should be finished. It's due to David Cameron's utter weakness just two years into office that Hunt is still culture secretary tonight.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012 

Taxi for Mr Davies.

It was ever so slightly rich for Rhodri Davies, QC for News International at the Leveson inquiry, to rise today and complain about Vince Cable claiming that the Liberal Democrats had faced "veiled threats" over his role in charge of the BSkyB bid. News Corporation has after all admitted that the News of the World placed both Charlotte Harris and Mark Lewis under surveillance in the hope of finding some dirt on the two lawyers representing phone hacking victims, while those on the media select committee found themselves facing similar tactics. Then there's Ed Miliband, who was also effectively told that as he had "made it personal about Rebekah", he'd have it made personal about him. There's more than enough evidence that News International felt they could threaten politicians and anyone who stood in their way with impunity, so why wouldn't they do the same to a party that looked to be threatening "Project Rubicon"? Answer came there none.

P.S. Without prejudging anything, this blog suggested at the time that Andy Coulson might subsequently be visited by Inspector McKnacker over his evidence at Tommy Sheridan's libel trial. My conclusion to the piece hasn't stood up quite as well, though:

Happily this also means that the first investigation by the Met, which limited itself to just the phone hacking carried out by Clive Goodman and Mulcaire has been completely vindicated. Everything is once again right with the world, and the Met and News International can continue to have a fruitful and reciprocal friendship. Who could possibly object to that?

Oh dear.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012 

I'm just a pasty.

The media loves a u-turn. Ever since the blessed Margaret Thatcher stood up at the Conservative party conference in 1980 and declared that she was not for turning (even though she was, as she was later to claim that she had never adhered to monetarism), the political about face has been focused on as being uniquely embarrassing. After all, what use is a politician if they don't have the strength of their convictions? Even though we might often change our minds, once a member of parliament has spoken their words may as well have been set in stone; any subsequent dilution, or even alteration in tone is there waiting to be seized on. It's also not just an issue on these shores: over in those United States John Kerry was repeatedly berated in 2004 for "flip-flopping", while Mitt Romney, having been governor of liberal Massachusetts before becoming the Republican presidential nominee has disassociated himself from many of the positions and policies he previously espoused.

It's fair to say that the coalition's decision to row back on both the pasty and static caravan taxes announced in the budget are of a completely different degree of magnitude to Romney no longer being pro-choice or supporting public healthcare. The issue ought to be not so much that they've decided not to push the changes through as it is that they imagined they were far too clever to be caught out in such a way. As a blog post from Damian McBride pointed out, these were changes that looked to have been suggested by civil servants, both of which had been discussed during Gordon Brown's time as chancellor, and repeatedly rejected as being either too difficult to implement, or downright counter-productive. It looks as though so much effort had gone into debating the twin key policies of raising the income tax threshold and lowering the top rate of tax to 45p that the rest hadn't been thought through properly.

Even so, the idea that the pasty tax was a bad idea is nonsense. The entire point was that the likes of Greggs and supermarkets are competing with takeaways, and so not charging VAT on rotisserie chickens or steak bakes was unfair on them, as indeed it is. The other failure was in not realising what an open goal this would be, both to Labour, and to the Sun, currently intent on punishing Cameron for the Leveson inquiry. The Sun couldn't really give a stuff about pasties or Greggs, but seeing as it imagines every reader of the paper to be a beer-swilling, pie-chomping, England supporting overweight illiterate it made perfect sense to campaign on it. John Harris for his part makes a convincing case that the static caravan tax would have been far more damaging, although it's always worth being sceptical of the claims of industry as to how many jobs would be lost should they not get their way. And what with Francis Maude talking about jerry cans and garages and then Nadine Dorries being Nadine Dorries, it helped to underline that the cabinet, amazing as it might seem, isn't very representative of Britain as a whole.

Despite the inevitable media reaction, for the most part the electorate respect politicians changing their minds when they do it modestly and for the right reasons. The difficult part is knowing when the best time to make your u-turn is: do it too early and you give the impression that you're reacting in fright, while if you do it too late then the damage is often already done. Doing it during a parliamentary recess, as the coalition has, is downright cowardly. It also makes a mockery of ramming it through parliament as part of the budget only to then withdraw it later. In this instance it looks more like an act of political calculation, realising that government's problems really began with the budget (although frankly the real problem is the economy, which they refuse to alter their position on a jot), and that turning around might go some way to altering the polls, rather than changing tack for the right reasons.

The reality of the situation is shown in the approach to the justice and security bill, where another, very slight u-turn has been performed. No longer will the government ask for the power to order inquests to be held in secret in cases where the catch-all "national security" principle can be invoked. As a concession supposedly brokered by Nick Clegg, it's pathetic. The bill will still ensure that the equivalent of the "seven paragraphs" will never be released again, even when far more damning material has been heard in foreign courts as it had in Binyam Mohamed's case. For a coalition that came to power promising an inquiry into the security services' complicity in torture, one which has since been dropped, this is the most craven behaviour, and something that will tarnish it for far longer than the pasty tax will. They're for turning, but not where they desperately need to.

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Monday, May 28, 2012 

Never mind the jubilee.

Peter Wilby in the Graun:

The glossy newspaper supplements are out, the BBC (supposedly a hotbed of subversive lefties) is preparing wall-to-wall coverage, MPs are going on holiday for two weeks, the populace is ready to put out the flags and the picnic tables. In an orgy of deference, we are celebrating Elizabeth II's 60 years on the throne. If any other country were paying homage to an unelected head of state in this way, while the living standards of the majority of the population fall and schools and hospitals struggle with diminishing resources, we would call it "the cult of the personality" and probably think about invading.

Well, quite. I thought last year the wedding showed just how quickly a lot of people would adjust to a dictatorship, and if the pre-emptive arrests are repeated again this time without so much as a squeak of protest as before it will just underline the point.

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Bad Blair day.

It was difficult to watch Tony Blair appear before the Leveson inquiry today and not see the establishment failing to hold the establishment to account. On occasion, it can manage it: Private Eye has been as establishment as it gets from the beginning and yet it still does the equivalent of sticking its finger in the eyes of the rich and the powerful.

Today, the inquisitors and Leveson let themselves down. Blair repeatedly made ridiculous statements everyone knows to be the opposite of the truth, and yet he was allowed to get away with it. He claimed to have never authorised briefing against others in the Labour party, whereas if Gordon Brown was to say the same he'd of been laughed out of the place. His becoming godfather to Rupert Murdoch's daughter was nothing to do with his relationship with the mogul while he was in power, and they had never reached a deal, formal or informal on any aspect of policy. His phone calls to Murdoch prior to the beginning of the Iraq war were not to ask him to turn the Sun on Jacques Chirac and the French, perish the thought, and the decision to hold a referendum on the EU constitution was not because Murdoch said he'd lose the Sun's support if he didn't.

The sad thing is that Blair is still held in such thrall in certain quarters. Admittedly, this is hardly surprising when both Brown and Cameron have shown themselves to be pretenders to his presentational throne, and yet it means that through the sheer force of his personality and charm he can get through encounters such as these without a paw being so much as laid on him. All the more reason to applaud David Lawley-Wakelin for interrupting the proceedings and bringing at least a semblance of reality back into the room.

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Saturday, May 19, 2012 

Da dodgems.

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Friday, May 18, 2012 

Hiatus round-up.

I'm not here next week, more's the pity, seeing as it looks like the Euro's about to collapse and everyone's going to starve to death as a result. We can though all meet our maker safe in the knowledge that a social networking site guaranteed to have been overtaken by something new within 5 years is, for the moment, worth billions of dollars in the United States. Here then are a few links to keep you busy for oh, 5 minutes or so:

Mark Beaumont in the Grauniad making a fool of himself in the process of reviewing DJ Fresh's gig at the Koko, terming the producer a "dubstep pioneer".

John Sentamu in the Graun making a fool of himself over gay marriage. His opening paragraph begins thus so, and the article goes downhill from there:

I will be the first to accept that homosexual people have suffered discrimination and sometimes worse through the decades and that the churches have, at times, been complicit in this.

At times, John? Are you sure you're not overegging the pudding with such a sweeping generalisation?

Jonathan Portes on how in twenty or fifty years from now the government's refusal to borrow to invest when the rate at which we can do so is at a historic low will be looked upon with incredulity and horror.

John Savage and Ewan Pearson on how I Feel Love changed pop.

And lastly, here's's mash-up of the Leveson inquiry, turning the proceedings into a "auto-tuned hip-hop extravaganza":

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Thursday, May 17, 2012 

Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.

Well did you hear, there’s a natural order.
Those most deserving will end up with the most.
That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top,
Well I say: Shit floats.

Today, Donna Summer died. Meanwhile, in London, the Ivor Novellos were taking place. The writers, that's the writers, not the public or record company executives, gave awards to Ed Sheeran, Adele and Take That. Oh, and PJ Harvey for her album, but they pretty much had to do that if they weren't to lose all credibility. Two years ago Lily Allen won three, including one for the lyrics to The Fear.

There's always been terrible music. That even the writers are now giving awards to mediocrities, when 35 years ago Summer, Moroder and Belotte were ripping it up and starting again (alongside their punk contemporaries it should be noted) really ought to bring home that, for the second time this week, this has to stop. Please.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012 

Oh, they hate things. Just the wrong things.

From time to time, there comes along an article that is so lacking in apparent awareness that it takes the breath away. When that same article is written with seeming direct input from the bowels of Downing Street, it makes you realise that two years in, this government is already away with the fairies.

Steve Hilton then is gone. I personally thought he had already gone, and that the omnishambles of the last couple of months was partially down to his no longer being at the rudder, but apparently not. As when all those other past great minds have left the political stage, his passing has been marked with platitudes from many about how he brilliant he was when he was in fact about as useful as, to quote The Thick of It, a marzipan dildo. Hilton's big idea was the Big Society, a concept that may well have worked if we weren't going through the worst recession since the Black Death. As we are, and as not a single person ever managed to give a proper definition of what it was other than people running public services, it went down like a certain X Factor judge.

Ben Brogan's theory for why the government is doing so badly, presumably straight from the gob of Steve Hilton, is wait for it, that the Tories don't hate the opposition enough. Gordon Brown is as well known, hated the Tories and everything they stood for. He and his minions dedicated themselves to screwing over the opposition in every way that they could, and so for that matter did the likes of Alastair Campbell. The thing about the Conservatives is really, honestly, they're just too nice, at least personally to other people. The factions within the party can fight like two tomcats in a sack as been documented over the years, but they just don't want to put the boot properly in to Labour. Why else, apart from the fact they're just such lovely people? Well, for many of them life in opposition was fairly sweet. They could do their second jobs, earning more for a few days' work a month than the average person makes in a year, and they weren't pilloried quite as much as they are now.

The problem with this thesis is that for the most part it's balderdash. Yes, Gordon Brown hated David Cameron, but then anyone who doesn't actively dislike Cameron hasn't been paying enough attention. It also doesn't take into account how hidden below the surface Cameron has a filthy temper, something that only becomes apparent when he's truly rattled, as when he was ordered back to the Commons to give his statement on Jeremy Hunt. It might well be true that there are certain ministers, even the prime minister, who are too comfortable in their positions and that's affecting their performance but that doesn't even begin to explain why the government has so spectacularly shafted itself.

Part of the real reason is that it's tried to be just too damn clever, something that Steve Hilton more than contributed to. As Brogan relates, Hilton wanted George Osborne to go even further in the Budget: not just drop the top rate of income tax to 45p, but to 40p and slash corporation tax to 15%. They imagined that this would thoroughly delight the business world, and also in the longer term drive the recovery: come to Britain, earn millions and pay the same rate of tax as the middle class! According to Brogan, the 50p rate was one of Brown's unexploded bombs, when it really wasn't. The polls were and are clear: the public aren't attached to the 50p rate in the long term, yet they think at the moment when they're making sacrifices it should stay. You can see the reasoning behind changing it, but it was politically stupid in the extreme. Everything has then followed on from that, with all the other problems in the budget, the fuel strike panic, the Abu Qatada idiocy and the continuing Leveson clusterfuck. Add in the recession, created almost entirely through the government's austerity fetish even if most of the cuts are still to come, and these are the real reasons why Cameron's ratings are now below that of Brown in 2010.

The one other thing Brogan's piece tells us is that Hilton liked to shout at the civil servants. In the dying days of the Brown government when Andrew Rawnsley's book was published chronicling Gordon's rages, including turfing a Downing Street secretary out of her chair because she wasn't typing fast enough, this was cited as being the ultimate evidence of his unsuitability for the job. Hilton's attitude by contrast is shown as being understandable, even after being repeatedly reprimanded by Cameron's chief of staff, as the civil servants are clearly standing in the way of his reforms and deserve it. If that wasn't enough, then Hilton's proposal for an additional £25bn cut in welfare spending, on top of the £18bn already slashed ought to tell you who it is he and the Conservative section of the government really hate: the most vulnerable in society, who have to get it into their thick skulls that the days of New Labour's "socialism" are over. As for him, he's off to teach at Ayn Rand university in America. He'll be deeply missed.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012 

Now if they could get the dog to jump a shark...

I do of course realise that much of the voting on Britain's Got Talent is tactical. Not that I've ever watched the damn thing. Essentially any act other than a singer, meaning that Simon Cowell can't instantly earn even more money out of them, wins, with the exceptions of Paul Potts and Jai McDowall (who was dropped from Cowell's label after one album). Some of it was probably ironic. I also don't know who the other acts were. And Samuel Johnson's one-liner about dogs walking on their hind legs is as accurate now as when he said it back in the 18th century.

All the same, it does seem to say something about this country in 2012 that an entertaining but completely throwaway act is voted the best we have to offer. True, the last thing we need is yet another Leona Lewis/Adele clone, but still, a fucking dancing dog (and frankly, at times it looks as though it is going to turn into a one girl, one dog performance of the Aristrocrats)? It would be nice to think we have now, finally, inexorably, reached the point at which reality talent shows have jumped the clichéd shark. We've had frumpy spinsters, execrable urban dance acts, Shayne Ward and Matt Cardle, and now we've got Pudsey. This must stop. Please.

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You can take the woman out of News International...

Last Friday it was difficult not to feel at least a quiver of sympathy for Rebekah Brooks. As well as being asked some faintly irrelevant questions by Robert Jay during her appearance at the Leveson inquiry, such as whether she had swam with Rupert Murdoch (she did at least recognise complaining about such trivialities was the height of hypocrisy), she is also as far as I can recall the only witness whose choice in the sartorial department has been commented upon. The right-on Guardian ran an wonderfully enlightening piece by their fashion editor ("A white Peter Pan collar sends the most unambiguous of fashion messages"), while on Newsnight Charlotte Harris's first sentence was on how amusing it was that Brooks had chosen to dress up as a puritan. There admittedly was more than enough newsprint spent on what she actually said, but did we honestly need to know that her dress cost £475 from an online boutique?

To which the answer today might be yes. Those who've so much as read a single post here on phone hacking will know it was a certain Rebekah Brooks who stated back in 2009 that the Guardian's coverage had "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public" (PDF). As public relations goes, it must rank up there as one of the most stupid, reckless and foolhardy missives in recent memory. It still isn't quite as moronic though as today's ejaculation from Mr and Mrs Brooks:

We deplore this weak and unjust decision after the further unprecedented posturing of the CPS.

Jonathan Aitken might not have been facing a charge of perverting the course of justice, but swords of truth and trusty shields come to mind. And we all know how that ended up.

(P.S. Pity poor David Cameron.)

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Monday, May 14, 2012 

It's up for grabs now!

Well yes, yesterday was quite good, but seeing as the Premier League wants everyone to believe that 1992/93 was Year Zero, here's the last game of the 88/89 first division season between the teams in first and second, where if the north London side won by two clear goals they would be champions...

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Saturday, May 12, 2012 


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Friday, May 11, 2012 

A liar or an idiot.

Apart from the new email showing further proof of the closeness between Jeremy Hunt and Fred Michel, the most crucial piece of evidence given by Rebekah Brooks today at the Leveson inquiry was that she didn't believe her publishing of the details of sex offenders in the News of the World in the aftermath of the kidnap and murder of Sarah Payne would lead to reprisals. There are only two conclusions you can draw from such apparent insouciance: either Brooks is a liar, or she's an idiot. Her entire campaign was designed to force politicians to do something, and she and her staff knew that the precise way to do that was to get into the public domain information that would almost certainly lead, if not to vigilante action, than at the very least abuse and protests against those named. She perhaps didn't anticipate a paediatrician being targeted by mistake, but she absolutely knew what she was doing.

It's through this prism that you have to view the rest of her evidence, which was mostly mind-numbing in the extreme. Despite the fact she has been close to the last three prime ministers, we're meant to believe that this was all down to sheer friendliness on her part. Yes, obviously they thought they could get something by almost drawing her into their inner circle, but never once did she compromise her position as a journalist and never once did they compromise their position as a politician through their relationship.

Thankfully, Robert Jay was on far better form today than he was against the stonewalling Andy Coulson yesterday. He also seemed far better briefed. Brooks had to deny, unconvincingly, that she had variously demanded that Downing Street order a reopening of the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, else Theresa May would be appearing on the front page of the Sun every day until they did; that she did not, as widely reported, tell Andy Coulson that the Sun would not support the Conservatives until Dominic Grieve was moved from his job as shadow home secretary, having had the temerity to say to Brooks's face the Sun's coverage of crime and the Human Rights Act was hysterical; and that she did not in a phone call to Ed Balls demand the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith following the Baby Peter case, else they would "turn this thing on him".

Funny, isn't it, that there all these stories, all apparently untrue, about Brooks using her power and influence to demand things of politicians and yet she didn't believe there was anything inappropriate about the level of contact between the then editor of the biggest selling newspaper in the country and those making the law. She also didn't believe that politicians were trying to get to Rupert through contact with her, which is just about as obtuse as her evidence got. It was fascinating to learn though that David Cameron spoke to her repeatedly about the phone hacking accusations against the Screws, and yet he apparently never spoke to Andy Coulson about it. Very strange.

In spite then of how apparently little they discussed the BSkyB bid, which Brooks knew of two months before it was announced (it just so happens that it was almost in line with the Tories coming to power), it was mostly just Tories who commiserated with her when she was forced into resigning. It was done indirectly, naturally, and some of the reported words are not exact, but it is true that Cameron more or less said that he was sorry he couldn't show her the same loyalty she had shown him, as Ed Miliband had him on the run. He needn't have been concerned. Brooks today was loyalty personified. One suspects however that it won't save her from a short stretch in either Styal or Holloway.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012 

The eternal darkness of Coulson's spotless mind.

If, like me, you've seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and thought that the possibility of having certain memories wiped from your brain isn't necessarily a bad thing, then it seems that at long last a treatment has been developed that can achieve exactly that. It's called the Leveson inquiry.

Difficult as it is to believe, considering we've now had evidence
from both James and Rupert Murdoch, neither of whom could remember almost anything controversial that has happened to them, the latest sufferer of amnesia to testify seems to have the most serious case. Andy Coulson could barely remember his name, let alone almost anything else that's happened to him over the past decade.

Here's an incomplete list of the things he couldn't recall: the conversations he had with Rupert Murdoch about the news content while editor of the News of the World; any conversation with KRM about the paper's endorsement at the 2005 election; any mention of his previous employment when George Osborne enquired whether he'd be interested in becoming the Tories' chief spin doctor; any shadow cabinet minister other than David Cameron asking about phone hacking; whether News Corp's lobbyist, Fred Michel, attended a lunch with Cameron and the then Spanish prime minister; whether Cameron sought further assurances from him after the Guardian's phone hacking revelations in 2009; any specific conversation about the News of the World's endorsement of the Tories in 2010; when he knew that the Sun was going to endorse the Tories in 2009; or having any conversation with Fred Michel, Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Hunt or any other politician about the BSkyB takeover bid.

It was all unflinchingly loyal, and it was also absolutely infuriating. At times Coulson bordered on being incredulous at Robert Jay's questioning; did he really have to spell out why the Tories wanted him to deal with the media? His body language said exactly what he refused to, that it was breathtakingly obvious. As Michael Wolff writes, Coulson was the key conduit between News International and the Conservatives, and he alongside Rebekah Brooks was chiefly responsible for convincing Murdochs junior and senior that Cameron was a surer bet than Labour. It didn't matter that he didn't have a background in politics, as that was secondary. This is exactly why Cameron couldn't have cared less whether Coulson knew about hacking at the Screws, and why he apparently didn't enquire further regardless of all the warnings he was given. As long as he delivered in terms of the reason he was hired, and wasn't catastrophic at dealing with the rest of the media, he'd be just fine.

It was only once in office that the problems really started, as the whole phone hacking caper simply wouldn't go away. Coulson didn't go through developed vetting for obvious reasons, even though all his predecessors and indeed his successors have: they knew he wouldn't have passed. That he thinks he may well have seen top secret material and also sat in on national security meetings just shows the contempt Cameron felt for all the criticism he came in for over his hugging close of Coulson. He felt, just as Blair and Brown did when they sent commiserations to Coulson over his resignation from the Screws, that this phone hacking business was just part of the greater game. No one got hurt, apart from a few celebrities, and who cared about them?

Cameron's continuing loyalty was reciprocated in full. Coulson was "disappointed" with the Sun's coming out in favour of the Tories, as it was more about Labour losing their support than the Tories gaining it. That the paper did it on the day of Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour conference for maximum effect went unmentioned. Indeed, on the whole he felt that the Sun's coverage wasn't obsequious enough, apparently forgetting that on election morning the Sun splashed with a take on the Obama hope poster, claiming Cameron was the country's "only hope". Attempting to make further mischief, Coulson also claimed that a Guardian executive told him "not to write off" the possibility the paper could endorse the Tories, something Alan Rusbridger responded to by tweeting, Coulson fashion, that no one at Kings Road could recall such a conversation.

Remarkably, when he could remember certain details, he often seemed to be mistaken. Coulson complains bitterly in his witness statement (PDF) that following the Matt Driscoll tribunal ruling "it prompted a torrent of publicity in which I was repeatedly branded a bully". Considering that at the time only the Guardian, Independent and Private Eye so much as mentioned the finding of the tribunal, this is just ever so slightly hyperbolic. Likewise, he thought his answer to why there couldn't possibly have been a secret deal between News International and the Conservatives over the BSkyB bid was compelling: why did Vince Cable become business secretary with jurisdiction over approving it when someone else could have been put in place? The obvious answer is that it was part of the deal when the coalition was formed. In any case, if Cable had to be removed from his role over his apparent bias, why wasn't the same process followed over Jeremy Hunt, who had previously said he wanted to act as a cheerleader for the Murdochs? And why is Hunt now still being defended to the hilt when the case against him is far more compelling that it ever was against Cable?

Coulson's evidence was summed up when he said that he was "too busy" to divest himself of the shares he received in News Corporation as part of his severance package. He was working far too hard to be bothered to ensure there was no possible conflict of interest in his role, apparently immersing himself fully in the detail of his job, and yet now he can barely recall much of what was he was doing. He was the very definition of an unreliable witness, but it was precisely this approach that will have delighted Downing Street. How Cameron must be hoping that Rebekah Brooks takes a similar tact tomorrow.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012 

"From David Cameron to David Brent."

If there's a day a year when it's possible to feel even slightly sorry for the Queen, it has to be when the state opening of parliament rolls round again. Anyone who seriously goes in for all that "oh, isn't she a wonderful, inspiring woman, served the nation her entire life" and doesn't then immediately add "and also lived a life of the utmost luxury as reward" is a fool, but the nonsense and farrago she has to put up with on the day of the Queen's speech does almost counteract it. She's now gone through the same tedious, ridiculous procedure 57 times, and that's 57 times too many by anyone's standards. To keep asking an 86-year-old woman to carry around a "large bag of potatoes on her head", even if it's only for around 15 minutes in order to perform this unnecessary, absurd ritual is about as offensive as it gets. Please, if there's going to be reform of the House of Lords, can we abolish the archaic bummery and flummery that goes with it?

That it also takes place in this most inauspicious of years, when we can spend billions on a fortnight long circus but not on providing jobs for the young unemployed only, to quote Shaun of the Dead, exacerbates things. Dennis Skinner's quip in the Commons, which has become as much of a tradition as the rest of the day, said it all: "Jubilee year, double dip recession, what a start". At least back in 1977, the year of the silver jubilee, there was disco and the arrival of punk, with Thatcherism still two years away. What have we got now? Brostep, David Guetta, Jessie J and Simon Cowell. Think there was no future then? Blimey.

Everything you really needed to know was in the speech's first two sentences. The coalition is no longer even promising growth, as it did two years ago; now all it offers is economic stability. It will focus on growth, but stability is all we can realistically hope for. George Osborne previously told us that thanks to him, the economy was out of the danger zone. The reality is that we're still sinking.

What then is the big idea in the Queen's speech to get to grips with this? Why, they're going to make it ever so slightly easier to sack people! The idea, such as it is, is that this will enable companies to clear out the deadwood and instead hire in some go-getting youngsters that can drive them forward, thereby creating more jobs that the deadwood can then err, reapply for. Just as the coalition is trying to convince us that they're doing everything they can to help the "strivers" and the hard-working, those who find themselves without a job, or even worse, sick, may as well give up, as it's clear they're on their own.

There's also very little in it to tackle top pay, despite all that's been said. All the Enterprise bill proposes is making shareholder votes binding, which doesn't change much when there hasn't been a successful vote yet against director remuneration, and when chief executives are having to resign anyway despite that. The banking reform bill splitting investment and retail is welcome, as is the green investment bank, but neither are going to happen before the next election. About the only act that can be welcomed wholeheartedly is the Children and Families bill, and as Ed Miliband pointed out, it sounds like a Labour bill because large sections of it are pilfered from their manifesto at the last election.

The real winners it seems are the intelligence agencies, and the police. Quite why there's a need for yet another attempt to set-up a British FBI with the National Crime Agency, the Serious Organised Crime Agency having been such a massive success is unclear. It also seems that regardless of all the recent triumphs at SIS and MI5, whether through all but refusing to cooperate with the police investigation into the death of Gareth Williams, with the head of the Met yesterday announcing a forensic review of the case, or the apparent collusion with the Gaddafi on rendition, they're going to be rewarded with a bill that will prevent evidence like that revealed during Binyam Mohamed's legal action ever being revealed in court again. They're also going to get further access to the internet records of everyone, although this has been split off into a separate bill in an attempt to show the coalition really is listening to criticism, and is still concerned about civil liberties, honestly really.

And then there's the aforementioned Lords reform bill. It's not a priority apparently, but it must be more of a priority than HS2 for instance, the sort of government work programme that would create jobs, and which will have to wait another year before the legislation is ready. Tim Montgomerie, bless him, says that the whole thing "feels authentically Cameroon". If by that he means it's utterly vacuous and has no overriding theme, then he's absolutely right. As said yesterday, this is the sort of legislation programme a government that's run out of steam and doesn't know what to do decides upon. It hasn't quite reached the point of setting up a Cones Hotline, although that might be Nick Clegg's next big idea, but it's not that far off. For a government that is only two years in, it really is about as bad as it gets; no hope doesn't even begin to cover it.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012 

In the rose garden.

It wasn't meant to be this way. By this point, regardless of whether the Conservatives had won the election outright or not, the economy was meant to be growing at a sustainable level. The private sector, we were told, would step into the areas where the state was being cut back. Any lingering disquiet over the cuts was meant to have been overwhelmed by a "march of the makers", a return of that feel good mood, living standards rising again, and hope of all hopes, by 2015 tax cuts all round, just in time for the case for the second term to be made.

What we've had instead has been so wretched that the coalition has had to be effectively rebooted. Relaunched, in the parlance of the hacks inside the Westminster bubble. Gordon Brown's time as prime minister saw innumerable "relaunches" of Labour, all of which only contributed to the notion that his government was utterly doomed. Each successive time either he or his ministers made their case to the nation, begging that the apparent end of their relationship be reconsidered, more and more people decided it really was time to call off the affiar. Cameron might have looked strangely like a human sized condom filled with vomit, but he couldn't be any worse than Gordon Brown, a man who seemed to smile involuntarily. And anyone with doubts about Cameron could plump instead for Nick Clegg, who was neither of the above despite being exactly the same.

Cameron and Clegg have today then duly "gone on the offensive". This is a wonderful example of the brilliance of the English language: just as they have indeed supposedly bucked their ideas up and want to sell themselves all over again to the great British public, it also has a beautifully brutal double meaning, as nothing is currently more offensive than the sight of this gruesome twosome pretending that all is right between them. Their pairing is as insulting to our collective intelligence as it comes, as though we'll somehow decide that we should give them another chance purely because they're doing the act in the Downing Street rose garden all over again, albeit this time in front of the desperately unfortunate employees of a tractor factory. The message after all is exactly the same, regardless of what's happened over the past two years: no retreat from austerity now, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future (or efficiency, as Cameron hilariously tried to rebrand it), even though we're now in a double dip recession as a direct result of it. There isn't any revolt against this strategy, Cameron insisted; Francois Hollande supports deficit reduction too! That he also wants the Eurozone pact that effectively outlawed Keynesianism rewritten went unmentioned.

There are of course numerous messages to be taken from last week's local election results, and your own political prejudices will inform what you think voters were saying. If you're a Tory right-winger, you focus on the rise in support for UKIP and say this means you have to drop wishy-washy liberal crap and go to the hard right. If you're a Labour supporter or sympathiser you think it means that it was a protest against both austerity and the cuts. If you're a Liberal Democrat, then, err, it means you've got another 3 years of this hell yet to go. The problem for the coalition is that it's getting it from all sides, to a far more problematic extent than a single party government would be. It also leaves it with almost no room for manoeuvre: the cuts and austerity were made such a fetish from the outset that both Cameron and Clegg imagine to backtrack now would result in them losing all credibility. In fact, more likely is that they'd gain some respect for admitting they got it wrong; what people really loathe is incompetence, as has been demonstrated over the last six weeks. More prosaically, it means that the Tories can't tack to the right if they wanted to because of the Lib Dems, while the Lib Dems have failed to gain any credit for what they've achieved because it's all so massively overwhelmed by the damage of the worst Tory policies.

Furthermore, thanks to the Tory strategists reading Tony Blair's autobiography far too literally, putting into practice his advice that he wished he'd began his reforms immediately rather than half-way through his second, the coalition has already put on the statute book their changes to the NHS, education and welfare. The policy cupboard has as a result been left almost bare; have a look at the bills mooted as being in tomorrow's second Queen's speech, and see how reminiscent of the last years of Brown's government they are. Yes, there's the banking reform and public sector pensions bills, both of which are important for diametrically opposite reasons, but the rest is pitiful. Lords reform which no one really wants, a national crime agency, to which the only response has to be, what, again, and that's about it. As true as it is that New Labour legislated far too much, legislation is what is needed when everything else is so dismal. It distracts attention, it invites debate, and it gives MPs something to do. Without it, all of the talk is going to be about the still tanking economy and the 80% of the cuts which are still to be made.

This also means there's plenty of time for those reforms to go horribly wrong. If NHS waiting times go up then there's only thing they'll be blamed on, and it seems a more than reasonable prediction that Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit, a good idea on paper, becomes a logistical nightmare akin to the early years of tax credits when implemented.

It could still all change. The economy can't slump forever, surely, and the current omnishambles will eventually pass; no government can go on being both unlucky and seemingly incompetent forever without something breaking. The odds are good though that this won't be the last relaunch between now and 2015.

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Saturday, May 05, 2012 


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Friday, May 04, 2012 

End of the beginning.

There is always the danger of reading far too much into local election results. By any yardstick both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats ought to have done badly yesterday, and indeed they have. The Liberal Democrats are playing their losses down, despite how this leaves them with fewer councillors than at any time since the Liberals merged with the SDP. They obviously hope that this will be as low as they go, but they seem to forget that 80% of the cuts are still to come, as have the Tories, and there is still no growth in sight.

All the same, Labour's gains are solid without being truly spectacular. The overall share of the vote, rather than being in line with results where the governing party went on to lose power does instead resemble Labour in the 80s and the Tories in the first half of the 00s. This said, we are still only two years into the coalition and have only recently reached the point at which Labour has been seeing a lead in the opinion polls that would give them a comfortable majority if repeated at an election. If nothing else it will end any murmurings about Ed Miliband's leadership, and about time too.

It is also lovely to see certain Tories so quickly turning their fire on the leadership for not being right-wing enough. It seems to have passed them entirely by that the main concerns at the moment are not immigration, crime, Europe or gay marriage, except among the usual minority, but the economy, jobs and standard of living, all of which they are less quick to be critical about. Likewise, for all the talk of the rise in support for UKIP, it's only turned into a gain of one seat, regardless of how it may have cost the Tories in places; the Greens by contrast have gained four overall. The BNP's collapse meanwhile has continued, leaving them with a pitiful four councillors in total. If there is a swing to parties to the left and right of Labour and the Tories as there has been across Europe, then it hasn't gone to the furthest extremes.

Inevitably, if Ken loses in London as he seems certain to, then the Tories will point to Labour not making the key gain they needed to. As said before, letting Ken stand again was a huge mistake as it allowed Boris to turn the election into a battle of personalities, with policies coming a very distant second. For the most part the rest of the country seems to have seen London and said, nope, we don't want that here. And thank goodness for that.

Update: Approximately 20 years later, it turns out Boris has won by about 60,000 votes. Fairly apparent that with a David Lammy or an Alan Johnson there would now be a Labour mayor to go with the 800+ council seats. Great to see Jenny Jones grab third place, and by 8,000 votes over Brian Paddick, and also impressive that Siobhan Benita ran the Lib Dems close. You also suspect though that UKIP would have done hell of a lot better had they not for some reason been down on the ballot under their slogan rather than as UKIP.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012 

Louise Mensch goes stray for pay! (Or, seeking attention and then complaining about the downsides of doing so.)

Louise Mensch has it seems been taking lessons in distracting attention away from legitimate criticism from Nadine Dorries. Yesterday Mensch tagged a few, and it should be stressed it is a few, unpleasant tweets from various people and then complained about how horrible it is being bullied on social networking websites. First off, some of them aren't unpleasant or anything approaching bullying, they're funny and intended as ironic: Jared Earle asking whether she'll be doing page 3 considering her support for the Murdochs amuses me, even if it doesn't anyone else. At the other end of the scale there's Vice magazine, doing a passable impression of SugaRape by asking "crusties" on May Day whether they'd have sex with her despite the fact she's a Tory. That's just so witty and outrageous guys! Next you'll be going "stray" for pay and writing about it!

On the whole though, they're just the fairly standard comments that anyone in the public eye and active online can expect to get. It's not nice and no one's pretending it is, but it isn't going to change, regardless of how many times the likes of the Sun print articles about how evil trolls are. And really, Mensch should have a thick enough skin by now not to get upset about being called a cunt. As for the Guardian then weighing in about how terrible this misogyny is, both of those referring to her as a slut are women (and one then said it was a joke just to get her to favourite her tweet). It's not so much about sexism as it is about most people just reaching for the nearest and most obvious insult: portraying it as something more than that often gives too much credit to the person dishing out the abuse. Furthermore, Peter Oborne got it right in his piece for the Telegraph today when he described Mensch as an "attention seeker", which is exactly what she is. Seek attention, as Mensch did on Tuesday by touring round every TV and radio station she could denouncing the report declaring that Rupert Murdoch wasn't fit to run News Corp, and you can't then expect to always have your position critiqued in calm, courteous terms.

One suspects that the real reason Mensch decided to highlight the abuse she was receiving was to take attention away from the fact that the main point she was making on Tuesday, that the "not fit" criticism was put in at the last minute, simply wasn't true. It had in fact first been proposed back at the end of March, when the chair of the committee, John Wittingdale, said it would have to be voted on later as it was clearly controversial and a consensus wouldn't be able to be reached without one. Tom Watson has since claimed that a second letter from James Murdoch to the committee appeared to "uncannily" answer many of the concerns raised by the committee in private conversations. Louise Mensch admits she received a briefing from Fred Michel, the News Corp lobbyist who had a "close" relationship with Jeremy Hunt's special adviser, but that it was declared and she did not discuss the committee's work on the report. Even if nothing was untoward, Mensch declaring that she found James Murdoch a "compelling, convincing and consistent" witness suggests that she's either gullible (unlikely) or exceptionally willing for whatever reason to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The other effect of all this has been to successfully relieve the pressure on David Cameron over his judgement and links to the Murdochs, which was precisely what the Tories aimed to do in the first place by reducing the criticism of both junior and senior. Next week we might just get back to that: Rebekah Brooks is appearing at the Leveson inquiry and she may well reveal the texts exchanged between Cameron and herself. Not even Louise Mensch will able to distract attention away from what they may well contain.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012 

A nasty taste in the mouth.

There are many things about the investigation into the death of Gareth Williams that leave a nasty taste in the mouth. While the apparent murder of an MI6/GCHQ worker in such bizarre circumstances is always going to invite comment and speculation, it's fair to say that the leaks to the press alleging that Williams was either gay, a transvestite or had come to a sticky end at the hands of al-Qaida, all emanating from uncertain sources were little short of smears. The Met, having to work the case through the counter-terrorism branch SO15, were only able to take statements from MI6 officers that were then "anonymised" afterwards, making the process a travesty. The inquest heard that "assurances were taken" without any further questioning then taking place.

The inquest itself was delayed for over a year, yet this seemingly didn't allow the time for a detective from outside SO15 to be vetted and conduct the interviews again. When it did finally take place, the attitude of MI6 seems to have been remarkably similar to the one taken by MI5 for the 7/7 inquests: challenging every decision made towards openness, demanding anonymity and claiming "national security" would be endangered if almost anything approaching "sensitive" material was discussed in open court. SO15 it seems were similarly awed by their relationship with MI6: Detective Superintendent Michael Broster gave some truly extraordinary evidence, saying that as MI6 had been "very helpful throughout and continue to be" he saw no reason for memory sticks and another North Face bag found in Williams' office to be examined by the Met team, or indeed even told they existed, as the investigating officer only found out about them three days ago.

Most shocking of all is that MI6 didn't investigate why Williams hadn't turned up for work until 8 days after he was last seen. This was according to MI6 a simple error by his line manager, and yet it seems astonishing that an officer of any of the security services can vanish for days, missing appointments and meetings, without anyone attempting to make contact with them or seemingly wondering where he was. This was a man who had worked for the secret state his entire adult life, described as "brilliant", given an award as part of a team for his work on cryptic analysis. He was owed a duty of care, the same that the services offer to agents who have been caught in compromising circumstances without so much as batting an eyelid.

One line of inquiry quickly shut down was that Williams had been working under a separate identity, something that was apparently completely off limits. If this was the case, and he had gone abroad under one, then surely that is something that should have been considered. The police for their part still seem to be focused on the idea that his death his down to his private life, although the coroner appears to have dismissed this. Despite the likes of Mark Urban repeating myths that he was interested in claustrophilia, his internet use seems to have been minor, and his slight interest in bondage websites may well have been down to specific training he was about to undergo at MI6, something else they have declined to comment on.

If he was secretly gay, or interested in dressing up in women's clothes, then there seems to be no evidence that he indulged in either with partners, and no one has come forward to say they were involved with him when you would have expected they may have done. He never discussed either with the two female friends he had, or with his sister, all of whom he was close to. The women's clothes he bought had after all not been taken out of their packaging, more than suggesting they were either gifts or they were part of his interest in fashion.

Despite the coroner also saying there's no evidence that his death was connected to his work, which rather suggests that we're no further than when the investigation began, it's seems remarkable there's been so little comment on how the heating had been turned up in the flat, in spite of how it was August, likewise that there were no fingerprints in the bathroom near to the bath as you would expect. All of this suggests that this wasn't someone panicking at a sex game that went wrong, but as Williams's family suspects, something far more sinister. It's difficult not to think that MI6 knows exactly what happened to Gareth Williams, but they have no intention of letting anyone else know.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012 

"Not fit."

The select committee system has at long last come of age. Today's report by the culture, media and sport committee into News International and phone hacking (PDF) is absolutely devastating, even more critical than this morning's Guardian report suggested it would be. While neither James or Rupert Murdoch are criticised for directly misleading parliament, the majority decision to say that Keith showed "wilful blindness" and so is not a "fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company" is as strong as it gets.

It's also, in spite of both what Louise Mensch said at the press conference this morning and News Corporation have since released in a statement, completely justified. It most certainly is partisan though, just in the completely opposite way to that implied by Mensch and News Corp. Mensch claimed that the committee had heard no evidence which could justify reaching the conclusion the majority did on Murdoch, when in fact the case is clear cut and set out unflinchingly; the entire section from paragraph 201 onwards on the corporate culture at News Corporation is detailed and focused on just that. News Corporation asked the committee to believe that even after the Guardian had published its 2009 expose on the Gordon Taylor settlement and they had issued their first report criticising the "collective amnesia" at the company that no one at the highest executive level questioned what they claim they were being told. They point out that even after the supposed epiphany in December 2010, as James Murdoch characterised it, the company was still claiming in its defence to the Sienna Miller's claim for damages that no other journalists had been involved with Glenn Mulcaire.

Since then the approach has been equally transparent: put all the blame on Colin Myler, Tom Crone and Jonathan Chapman. Involved as they undoubtedly were in the cover up, to believe it was all them is the equivalent of nonsense on stilts. Rebekah Brooks testified that "on average" she spoke to her benefactor "every other day"; are we supposed to believe that Rupert never enquired about the local difficulty with which she was personally dealing with, accusing the Graun of "likely deliberately misleading the British public", and also never talked about it with James? If, as he claimed at Leveson last week, he had long wanted to get rid of the News of the World, why didn't he at an earlier point use the scandal to act?

The reality is that as the report states Murdoch has displayed "excellent powers of recall and grasp of detail" ... "when it has suited him". All the more dubious then that when asked whether he knew for certain in January 2011 that the "rogue reporter" defence was false, he claimed to have forgotten the exact date. Furthermore, although the report doesn't make the exact argument, the fact that he saw nothing wrong with the approach taken by Neville Thurlbeck in the Max Mosley case, with his attempt to blackmail one of the women involved is a wonderful example of the culture that operated at News International, not necessarily specifically sanctioned at the highest level, but certainly condoned.

It's ridiculous then for Mensch and the other Conservatives on the committee (Therese Coffey voted against every additional criticism of both the Murdochs) to claim that it wasn't within their remit to declare whether or not Rupert was a fit and proper person to helm News Corp, and that's solely for Ofcom to decide. What is the point of politicians, and indeed a media committee unless it is make their views plain on a matter of this much importance? There was a culture of illegality at a company which was attempting to obtain a stranglehold on the British media, as the takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation would have achieved. This culture was, as even Rupert Murdoch admits, covered up. Either the executives at the company didn't know about it, in which case they were lied to and incompetent, or they knew about it and connived in it. Only finding that they thought Rupert and James's approach to everything "astonishing", as the Tories on the committee wanted the report to say, is not just a cop out, it's weak and pusillanimous.

Their real reasoning for wanting to do so though is politically sound. They know full well that this once again brings David Cameron and his lack of judgement into the equation. Yes, everyone sucked up to Murdoch, but this isn't just about Cameron being unlucky that the music stopped on his watch, it's about how he went further than New Labour ever did and installed as his spin doctor Andy Coulson, a man who resigned as News of the World editor because like the two Murdochs he knew absolutely nothing about what had happened on his watch. Despite being warned off by almost everyone other than those in the pay of Murdoch, Cameron went ahead and took Coulson into Downing Street with him, and once there instigated policy which massively favoured News International.

Just as Cameron is defending the indefensible as Ed Miliband put it yesterday by refusing to grant a separate inquiry into Jeremy Hunt's dealings with News International over the BSkyB bid, using his culture secretary as a human shield lest all the attention turn towards him, so the Tories on the committee are effectively defending the indefensible to protect their boss. The real partisanship here was from those who should have known better, and it will be something they will come to regret.

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