Foreign Policy: Cameron's Long Road To Recovery

Originally published on July 11, 2011 7:49 am

Robert Zeliger is an editor for Foreign Policy.

The implosion of the once mighty tabloid News of the World (NoW) is nothing short of a media tsunami. And the damage doesn't end at Fleet Street — nor even in the halls of the Murdoch News Corp. empire.

It's reaching all the way to 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister David Cameron is facing a crisis of leadership like none he's experienced so far.

After all, Cameron has ties to some of the most vilified people in the scandal. He courted Rupert Murdoch in the run-up to last year's election (which helped to ensure his victory). He's friends with Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the tabloid and current News International chief executive who has become a focal point of criticism for the mess. And he hired Andy Coulson, another former editor of the paper, as his communications director at 10 Downing. This morning, Coulson (who stepped down from his job in January) was arrested for his involvement with the paper's illegal activities.

Those are bad associations to have these days, as the public's anger grows and demands for penance mount.

So how badly damaged is the Cameron brand after this week?

"Permanently and irrevocably," writes political analyst Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph.

"Until now it has been easy to argue that Mr. Cameron was properly grounded with a decent set of values," he writes. "Unfortunately, it is impossible to make that assertion any longer. He has made not one, but a long succession of chronic personal misjudgments."

In other words, he's forever tarred with turning a blind eye to some of the press's shadier tactics, while cozying up to media executives in order to win political backing.

Well, what politician hasn't done that?

Similar charges were leveled against Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But Alastair Campbell, Blair's shrewd spin meister, writes that there's a difference.

"We certainly tried to get a better press than historically we enjoyed. But we always knew there were boundaries. If Tony Blair was beholden to Murdoch in the way people suggest, we wouldn't have pursued such a pro-European policy when his papers were so rabidly anti-European."

Cameron, says Campbell, has a deeper concern to confront now. His judgment has come into question — and that's a lethal problem for a British prime minister — especially one dependent on a coalition partner to stay in power. (His deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has distanced himself from Cameron's associations, saying the hiring of Coulson was the prime minister's decision. "I made my appointments; David Cameron made his.")

"Cameron was too slow to see the damage being done by his support for Coulson, his friendship with Brooks, and the growing sense that important decisions were not being made without fear or favor," Campbell writes.

The prime minister has indeed been on the defense. This morning, he distanced himself from his friend, Brooks, telling reporters, "It's been reported that she had offered her resignation [from News International], and I would have taken it." (The company denied she did that.)

He also said he would appoint a judge to oversee a judicial investigation into the alleged phone hacking (something Clegg had been pushing for) and would create a separate, broader inquiry into the "culture, practices and ethics of the British press." Cameron said the country's press regulatory commission "has failed," and he pushed for a new commission that is more independent from the journalism industry and built to examine it more rigorously.

Will any of that be enough to silence his critics?

The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, says the prime minister is "asking for a second chance."

"He is promising to go straight in his relations with media executives — being less cozy and less secretive in his dealings with them," he writes.

Oborne says he won't get a second chance from the public until he accounts for his ties to the NoW scandal.

We need an explanation of how he came to hire Mr. Coulson, what checks were made, what advice was taken. We need a checklist of those not so innocent social meetings with Mrs. Brooks. Hitherto, Downing Street has kept quiet about Mr. Cameron's meetings with Rupert Murdoch, thought to be one of the very first visitors received after being made Prime Minister. They now need to be made public.

But Cameron might want to tread lightly: His former confidants may have dirt on him, too.

For example, Brooks "may have acquired a great deal of information about him and the senior members of his cabinet," writes Oborne. "Mrs. Brooks is cornered and liable to strike out."

At his news conference Friday, Cameron said he understood "people will judge me" and that in hiring Coulson, he had given him "a second chance, but the second chance did not work."

We'll soon see if Cameron gets his own second chance.

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