Richard Ingrams: Cameron needed little persuasion from his patron


Watching David Cameron in the great House of Commons debate on Wednesday was to be reminded time and time again of Tony Blair. Both men have the same useful ability to say nothing in a very forceful way.

But there were echoes too of the Iraq war in that in both cases the British prime minister was justifying his behaviour as the stooge of the more powerful American – in Blair's case, George Bush, in Cameron's, Rupert Murdoch.

Cameron was asked repeatedly about his many meetings with Murdoch and whether the BSkyB takeover had been discussed. His answer was always the same – that no "inappropriate" conversations had taken place between them. MPs seemed satisfied with this unsatisfactory formula and, as so often, the important point was overlooked, namely that Cameron had dismissed Vince Cable, the minister responsible for the BSkyB decision, and substituted Jeremy Hunt.

Cable was on record, thanks to an underhand sting by The Daily Telegraph, as an enemy of Murdoch. Hunt was on record as an admirer. Cable was accused of bias; Hunt was mysteriously considered to be impartial.

It reminded me again of Blair, who dismissed his clever foreign secretary Robin Cook, strongly disapproved of by Bush and his colleagues, and replaced him with Jack Straw. Neither Cameron nor Blair needed much persuasion to do what their patrons expected of them.

An editor asks where the story came from

Though never a member of the Chipping Norton set, I have one thing in common with Rebekah Brooks, namely that both of us have been editors. And all editors share an identical fear – the fear of being sued for libel. That is why I find it rather hard to believe the claims of Brooks and others that they were unaware of what was going on in the phone-hacking department.

Because the first thing an editor does when confronted by a scandalous story is to ask the journalist responsible two questions: how do we know this and – more importantly – will we be able to prove it if they bring a libel action.

The reassuring answer given to Brooks would have been that there were recordings of telephone conversations to back the story up. She may not have wished to pursue the matter further by asking how those recordings were obtained, because it would have undoubtedly crossed her mind that they could only have been obtained by illegal means.

There were echoes of the Nuremburg trials in the cross-examination of Brooks and the Murdochs by those MPs this week. In both instances you had the impression that people knew, or at least suspected that nasty things were going on, but they hoped to avoid any accusations of responsibility by not asking too many questions of their underlings.

A meaningless vision of personal integrity

As a general rule, it is always advisable to distrust anyone who refers to their personal integrity. One of the latest to do so is the Metropolitan Police Chief, Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned this week following revelations that he had appointed a News of the World journalist as his press adviser and accepted £12,000 of free treatment at a luxury health spa indirectly linked to the newspaper. He resigned, he said, but he did so with his "integrity intact".

The following day John Yates, once the country's most senior counter-terrorism officer, also resigned as a result of his failure properly to investigate the allegations of phone hacking. Like Stephenson, he insisted that he had acted with "complete integrity".

We have heard it before from errant politicians like one-time Labour home secretary David Blunkett and the notorious Alastair Campbell, famous for his "dodgy dossier". All it is is a way of saying that you have done nothing wrong without actually spelling it out. Though others may not feel the need to mince words.

It was another top police officer, Commander Cressida Dick, who announced after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes that she had done nothing wrong despite being the officer responsible for the operation. Extraordinary as it may seem, she is now being mentioned as a possible successor to Sir Paul Stephenson.