PRIME MINISTER David Cameron faces a detailed examination of his close relations with senior newspaper executives today as he gives evidence at the Leveson inquiry into press standards.
• Appointment of Andy Coulson has “come back to haunt him and me”, says Cameron
• Prime Minister had 26 meetings a month while in opposition
Follow the latest with politics editor Eddie Barnes...
4.02pm: Cameron thinking out loud about how to encourage the press to buy into a system, perhaps with sticks and carrots. They could have their rights to a seat in the Westminster lobby withdrawn he ponders. But there can’t be a situation where ordinary people have to “relive the nightmare” of press intrusion all over again with a poor hearing when they seek redress. The PM appears to be tiring a tad. He talks about the press’s ‘neuralgia’, when he meant (I assume) paranoia. Anything more to add, asks Jay? “No, we’ve covered the waterfront,” he declares, slightly confusingly.
His final contribution is to state that people like him deserve more attention into their privacy than normal families. “They (members of the public) could safely leave their child in the pub and not have the same attention on them,” he states, a reference to the recent revelations that he left his daughter Nancy in the pub. “I have heard stories about MPs who had been left outside service stations and butcher’s shops and that helped explain my colleagues a great deal,” he adds to guffaws. A nice ending, but it hasn’t been an easy experience for the PM. He came across as decent, but also rather pressured.
3.45pm: Cameron now focussing in on the recommendations from the Inquiry. It must centre on the experience of the Dowler family, he says. “Are we really protecting people who haev been caught up and thrown to the wolves?” he asks. So what’s the solution on regulating the press? “It can’t be self regulation, it has to be independent. In a free society it would be much better if we could deliver it without statute. I think that is the challenge.” He says he wants to try and make independent regulation work before considering a statutory solution on press freedom.
3.07pm: Turning now to learning lessons, Cameron declares that one area that needs examining is the role of special advisers, when they’re involved in quasi-judicial processes (hello, Adam Smith, Jeremy Hunt’s SpAd who had to quit over his email contacts with News Corp). He declares: “There needs to be adequate training.” Lord Leveson agrees: “These comparitively young men and women, devoted to the work they are doing, unlike civil servants of an equivalent age and rank.... there doesn’t seem to be anything in place.”
2.55pm: Cameron getting a bit tetchy as Jay keeps suggesting that the decision to bring in Hunt was a bit hasty and not based with all the relevant information to hand about Hunt’s clear support for the BSkyB bid. “It was not a rushed, botched decision,” he says. He reads out subsequent comments by the Government’s lawyer saying there was nothing wrong with giving Hunt the job. “He is the government’s chief legal adviser,” says Cameron. He then adds: “If anyone had told me that Jeremy Hunt shouldn’t do the job, I wouldn’t have given me the job.”
2.47pm: Cameron is having a bit of a communications problem. He is a politician used to the to-and-fro of the journalist/politician interview. That format insists the journalists attempts to trip the politician up. The politician then fends it off and attempts to bat back with a firm defence, or even an offensive shot. The trouble is that most of Jay’s questions are aimed at getting information. It is not a cross-examination. But Cameron keeps answering as if he needs to hit back and justify himself. Understandable but it sounds rather defensive. He’s onto the day Vince Cable’s comments about “declaring war” on the Murdochs were published. “I had a problem. I was a Prime Minister in search of a solution.” Replacing him with Hunt was a “neat” solution. It came from Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary. “Our reputation for competence and for not dithering for not dealing fairly with business was at risk,” he says.
2.32pm: He is then asked about a note he received from Jeremy Hunt in which the Culture Secretary expresses his support for the BSkyB, prior to taking over responsibiity for the bid in November 2010. He concedes he had forgotten about the note a month later when he decided to give responsibility for the bid to Hunt. He agrees that, had he remembered the note, he would have raised it that day - as the government was trying to work out whether Hunt was suitable to take on the job. “If that moment if I had recalled the private note we could have put that into play as well,” he says. But he then reads out fresh legal advice to argue that, even if he had raised its contents, there would still have been nothing stopping Hunt going ahead anyway.
2:15pm: Afternoon session starts with Cameron once again admitting his memory fails him on certain issues. He is asked about concern within the Tories about Coulson’s appointment. There was some but he can’t remember how many. “A handful of people,” he says eventually when pressed on the matter.
1:01pm The morning session ends with Cameron being quizzed at length about the assurances he sought from Coulson. In 2009, his then Director of Communications was going to appear before a Committee of MPs examining hacking. Cameron says he checked with Coulson beforehand that he would be telling them what he had told him before he took the job. “My memory of this is that he was going to make this appearance, presumably you will give the same assurances as you gave to me,” he says. The committe hearing was “embarrassing” he says. So, asks Jay, you were basically reliant on his word and nothing else? Not fair, says Cameron, pointing out that the PCC, MPs, the CPS and the police had also found no evidence. If someone gave me evidence I wouldn’t have employed him and I would have fired him but I didn’t get that information.”
12:51pm: Coulson’s appointment has “come back to haunt him and me,” acknowledges Cameron. He is asked about the assurances he asked for prior to taking him on about whether he knew or not about phone hacking at the News of the World (Coulson was its editor when hacking was going on). It is a little hazy. Cameron says he definitely remembers his chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn telling him he needed to ask about it. He says his “recollection” is that he then asked about what Coulson knew in a face to face meeting. This contradicts previous evidence by Coulson who says the conversation took place in a phone chat when he was on holiday in Cornwall. Did you seek to check the verbal assurances Coulson gave you, asks Jay? “No, but - as I say - this issue had been investigated by others.” (ie; the police, MPs). And why did you give him a second chance? “Because he had done the honourable thing,” by resigning from the NOTW, says Cameron.
11:40am: Revealing discussion about a meeting between James Murdoch and Cameron in 2010 when Murdoch told the Tory leader that the Sun was going to back him in the forthcoming election. “He was very keen to tell me directly that the Sun was going to support the Conservatives. My memory was thats what the conversation was about,” says Cameron. Doesn’t tally with Salmond’s claim yesterday that Murdoch always told him to speak to editors on the stance of their newspapers.
Then an extraordinary insight into the mind of James Murdoch. He has a particular interest in defence, says Cameron. “He takes the view we should have six aircraft carriers rather than two,” says Cameron. Readers in Govan and Rosyth should start campaigning for more News Corp influence now.
11.16am: Cameron had 26 meetings per month with media (ie nearly every day) in Opposition. This has done down by 50% since becoming PM. “When I was elected I did try to do less of this.....it is very difficult becauase of these daily battles that you find.” He then goes on to criticise the way Gordon Brown set up Downing Street. “It felt too much like a news room,” he said (this is a reference to Brown’s horseshoe nerve centre at Number Ten). He said he tried to set up things differently so he wasn’t in a permanent “news warfare mode”.
11.04am: Cameron pointing out the absurdity with the over-regulation of politicians’ relations with the press. He has listed in his written evidence a series of journalists who are good friends of his. Is he supposed to note down every time when he meets them with his private secretary? “The more we write these rules, the more danger there is that you are going to forget you had a meeting with someone....these are people I see very regularly and I am never going to remember to tell my office when I meet them,” he declares. Then, he adds, it will come out that he hasn’t registered such a meeting, and suddenly a hare is running. He goes on: “You can’t un-make the friendships you have. Some of them you get to know because in some cases they are neighbours. It’s difficult stuff to get right, this.”
10:50am: New metaphor now: the volume knob. Cameron declares that sometimes it feels as if the shouty approach of the press goes a bit too far. “Sometimes it is frustrating when your motives are questioned. The volume knob is turned too high.” This is because the press is having to shout to be heard in a cluttered media landscape, he says.
Jay ponders about how errors usually are due to poor judgement, rather than venality. Cameron replies: “There have been politicians with bad motives and if a politician is discovered the press shouldn’t hold off making that point. That is all fair but sometimes it feels as if the volume knob is being turned up unecessarily.”
10:40am: Tortuous extended metaphor going on here. Cameron says the pendulum has swung too far where politicians have got too close to the media. This began towards the end of the Major government, he says, and the advent of New Labour. So, adds Jay, that means the pendulum has been in the wrong place up until July 2011? That’s a hell of a slow pendulum.
Now we get onto the question of deals with media barons. It’s all “nonsense”, says Cameron. “Of course I wanted to win over” the media, says Cameron....” but I didn’t do it on the basis of saying either overtly or covertly, your support will mean I wil give you a better time on this policy or that policy.”
On briefing wars, he goes on to note there have been “some dreadful things done in politics” and it needs to stop. About 4000 years of civilisation is against him on that one.
10:16am: Cameron giving his views on the media. Is he happy with the way things get reported? “That’s a bit like asking farmers about the weather, we are always going to complain,” he says. He goes on to note the downsides of the 24 hour news culture - with announcements all over the TV and internet immediately, newspapers have “moved more towards trying to find impact rather than just reporting what happened the day before”. That is “sometimes” a change for the worse for a politician trying to get his message across. “It feels like you’re being shouted at,” he adds. With the TV so important, he then says he has decided to spend more time focussing on broadcasting rather than press (he is being watched by his chief comms director Craig Oliver, a former BBC editor, hired because of his knowledge of telly, rather than the press)
10.11am : Off we go. Wonder if Cameron will give Robert Jay advice about good books, theatre shows and golf, as did Alex Salmond yesterday. The session begins with Mr Cameron being asked about his time as a special adviser in the early 90s and his time working for Carlton TV before entering parliament. Outside, the Eurozone continues to spiral downwards and the country goes to work.