Britain: Murdoch scandal threatens the prime minister

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and his deputy have resigned over the phone hacking scandal. Is David Cameron next?

Could “Hackgate” take down David Cameron? asked an anonymous columnist called “The Mole” in The burgeoning scandal surrounding the hacking of thousands of people’s voice mailboxes by reporters at the News of the World has already claimed News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, who resigned and was promptly arrested. Then came the resignations of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and his deputy, amid revelations that the police had hired a News of the World editor to do PR even as the paper was under investigation. At his resignation press conference, Stephenson “took an angry sideswipe” at Cameron. The prime minister, Stephenson pointed out, hired as his communications director Andy Coulson, a News of the World editor who had been forced to resign in disgrace because of the hacking scandal. Stephenson, by contrast, merely hired Coulson’s deputy, who hadn’t been known to have been involved with the hacking. “This left an awkward question hanging in the air: If Sir Paul’s head had to roll, why not Cameron’s?”

It’s not that Cameron committed a crime, exactly, said Alex Massie in The Spectator. The problem is “there’s enough evidence to build a story suggesting he was, to all intents and purposes, at the beck and call of News International and that he allowed the Murdoch press far, far too much influence.” Before his election, he went to a Greek island for a powwow with Rupert Murdoch himself. Subsequently, he made hiring and firing decisions based on demands from Murdoch’s papers. He socialized with Murdoch executives far more often than with any other media figures, even spending a cozy Christmas with Brooks. None of this is against the law. But for Cameron’s credibility, “the question is not of legality but of what is seemly.”

Meanwhile, Labor leader Ed Miliband’s stock is soaring, said Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. He went “from zero to hero in a fortnight,” forcing Cameron to extend Parliament’s session to debate the events, and demanding an overhaul of media-ownership laws. If Miliband

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“stays on this course without flinching, he has a good chance of seizing the day.” Indeed, Cameron’s coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, could desert him, said Roy Greenslade, also in The Guardian. The party could join Labor in a no-confidence vote. With his dithering and dissembling, Cameron has “forfeited his right to the office.”

I seem to be bucking the tide here, but I don’t see Cameron as “the next victim of the Murdochalypse,” said Toby Young in The Telegraph. It’s not as if Cameron was the only British prime minister to suck up to Murdoch. “The fact is that Murdoch threw the weight of his British papers behind the Labor Party in 1997, 2001, and 2005—and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were just as craven in their attitude toward Murdoch as Cameron.” Besides, Cameron has handled the crisis fairly well. He killed Murdoch’s attempt to buy BSkyB television station, and he has ordered a public inquiry into the hacking and police collusion. And nothing has emerged on him that’s so damaging that he has to go. “Not yet, anyway.”

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