Steve Richards: Hail the dawn of a healthier democracy

It's a great irony that Murdoch's papers would surely have backed Cameron at the last election even if a chimpanzee had been his press secretary
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The Independent Online

We are living through a drama as significant for Britain as the banking collapse and with consequences that are far deeper than those that arose from the MPs' expenses scandal.

David Cameron's appointment of Andy Coulson is only a symptom of a much bigger crisis, one that relates to the distorting power of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, the influence that gave him over elected politicians and the nature of the subsequent stifled political debate in Britain.

As Cameron acknowledged in yesterday's press conference, a tentative holding operation that still managed to feel historic, he wanted the support of Murdoch's newspapers before the last election and since. In pursuit of that overwhelming objective, other considerations were cast aside. As he went on to point out – understandably and fairly – the evidence of hacking surfaced while Labour was in power. Its leaders turned away for the same reason. They yearned for approval from an empire that owned around 40 per cent of the newspapers. The destructive hold, the narrowing of political debate that arose as a result, is what is at stake now. I have often thought that Cameron is not a particularly lucky leader even if he is – or was – at ease with the impossible demands of power. Oddly, I suspect he would have won an overall majority were it not for the economic crisis that erupted in 2008, in which his inexperience as a young leader was tested to the limit, and he and George Osborne changed policy too many times and often with the wrong calls.

Now, as Cameron noted yesterday in relation to politicians and the media, the music has stopped on his watch. In the dark silence all attention is on him, when it could have been on Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, two prime ministers who went out of their way to woo the mighty Murdoch and his powerful apparatchiks.

Who can blame them? Few voters observe politics in the raw. Newspapers mediate on the voters' behalf and the broadcasters pay homage. When The Sun endorsed Labour in 1997, the switch from the Conservatives led the BBC bulletins. Similarly when The Sun supported Cameron, the schedules were cleared. In both cases the broadcasters made the right judgement.

A powerful force in the land was making a move, mere politicians trembled or were jubilant, and they wondered what would follow. I was having dinner with the then chancellor, Alistair Darling, on the Tuesday night of the Labour conference after Brown's set-piece speech in the autumn of 2009. During the evening Darling got a text revealing that the Sun was switching sides in a co-ordinated attempt to wreck his party's pre-election conference. By then Darling was no fan of Brown but he looked up and said without hesitation, "The bastards". It was as if powerful forces were coming to get them all, and in one way they were.

Cameron was a beneficiary then, as Blair had been in 1997. He is uniquely culpable in only one respect but it is a culpability from which he struggles to escape. He appointed Coulson in spite of warnings from respected journalists and others that this was the equivalent of giving a job to a ticking time bomb.

Both Cameron and George Osborne, who was heavily involved in the appointment, are sometimes too casual about the way they make decisions, too quick to see short-term political advantage and to ignore evidence that gets in the way. This applies as much to policy-making, which has been chaotic, as it does to the selection of individuals.

A great irony is that I bet Murdoch's newspapers would have backed Cameron at the last election even if he had appointed a chimpanzee as his Press Secretary. He need not have given the job to Coulson, and in doing so he highlighted his tendency to dismiss awkward information when it challenges a desired outcome. In different ways the same applies to the unveiling of a thousand rushed policies last summer and autumn.

Even so, this is much bigger than the judgement of Cameron. There is a possibility that out of the crisis Britain becomes more democratic, and the public debate more open – a very big prize. In areas ranging from tax, spending, sentencing, immigration, Europe and even Iraq, senior Labour figures have agonised over what to do and say partly out of fear of what Murdoch's papers might do.

Ed Miliband has seemed more convincing this week because for once he dares to say what he really thinks. Brown became famous for being a stealthy Chancellor, a contortion that hid what he was doing from an admiring Sun. Cameron tried to set out a more progressive tone to his early leadership, but read his reactionary articles for the Sun and you would never have guessed. There is a chance that the public debate in Britain will be fuelled by more authentic and slightly more candid political voices.

Now that the Liberal Democrats are more assertively opposed, I cannot see how the Coalition can stand aside and let the BSkyB deal go ahead. But the potential significance of what has happened is bigger than one deal, and can be conveyed in a single question: If there were an election tomorrow which party leaders would want the endorsement of Rebekah Brooks? A week ago they would have died for it.