It was the perfect storm of sneaky media and bought-up politics in London on Wednesday, and the result was as tempestuous as you can imagine.
As media billionaire Rupert Murdoch sat calmly in a Westminster inquiry chamber and poured poison into the ears of all who would listen to his stories of influence over politicians, Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers were forced to face the Commons over the consequence of those words.
“I think, hand on heart,” Mr. Cameron confessed to opposition leader Ed Miliband in the heat of the event, “we all did too much cozying up to Rupert Murdoch – I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Here was the most dramatic Prime Minister’s Questions in recent memory. The day before, Mr. Murdoch’s son, James, had revealed the extent of his family’s close communications with Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt. The Tory minister was supposed to have been overseeing, in a “quasi-judicial” fashion, a $13-billion Murdoch purchase of TV enterprises that would have had a profound effect on the ownership of the British media and could have hurt the BBC’s operations.
It turned out, according to emails unveiled at the Leveson inquiry into media excesses, that the Murdochs were being reassured by Mr. Hunt’s aides that the deal was sealed, and quietly communicating through back channels in his staff; one aide even boasted to Murdoch staff that he was passing along “illegal” information.
On Wednesday, shortly before the Commons opened and Mr. Murdoch began speaking, the minister responded by sacking his chief aide, Adam Smith. Then Mr. Cameron stood up in the Commons and declared that he had faith in his beleaguered minister. “It is important to hear every side of the story before drawing conclusions,” he said.
This prompted screams of outrage from Mr. Miliband, who called these “totally pathetic answers.” One Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, flayed Mr. Hunt with a bit of class-war drollery: “Doesn’t this just show that, when posh boys are in trouble, they sack their servants?”
Mr. Hunt tried desperately to defend himself, and shift the blame to his now-departed aide: “The volume and tone of those communications were clearly not appropriate in a quasi-judicial process, and Adam Smith has resigned... however, I believe that Adam Smith did this unintentionally.”
Mr. Cameron stepped in to try to shift the part of the blame to the other bench. He noted that Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair had actually flown to Australia to win the endorsement of Mr. Murdoch in 1995. “Closeness between politicians and media proprietors had been going on for years,” he yelled, “and this government’s going to clean it up!”
As the house fell into shouting and chaos, Mr. Murdoch, down the street, was speaking humbly of his enormous, and quite evidently disruptive, power. “People can stop buying my newspapers any time,” he said, but they have tens of millions of readers, “and it is only natural for politicians to reach out to editors and proprietors.”