The day I tried to talk to David Cameron about doing some of the things he announced today
Posted on 8 July 2011 | 9:07am
Apart from his weakness over BSkyB, David Cameron – finally – said and did a lot of the right things in his opening statement at his press conference today.
Once the questions got under way, however, the arrogance and the peevishness started to creep in.
I know part of his defence of his poor judgement with regard to Andy Coulson is to try to put me in the same bracket, as he did with a little popshot today re ‘dodgy dossiers,’ and as doubtless he will try to do when the Iraq Inquiry reports.
First, a reminder that, rightly, he supported the Iraq war. Second a reminder that on a day he was talking about politics and media separating out again, he was merely doing the media thing of conflating two very different documents. For anyone interested in the detail read transcripts of evidence to the various inquiries to which I have testified.
But more importantly, as I tweeted earlier, if he had listened to what I have been saying about the press for some time now, he would not be in this mess now, in which his judgement is being so loudly questioned.
It has been blindingly obvious for years that this issue was not going to go away, despite the police, News International and the government willing it away. It has been obvious ever since he hired him that Andy Coulson, with whom I always got on perfectly well, was going to become a problem for him at some point.
It has also been obvious that the media culture has been changing for the worse and that political leaders have been too slow in dealing with it. As I have said before, Tony Blair and I used to argue about this, and some of those arguments are in my latest diaries. There were more as time went on.
Tony took the view that with all the other priorities of government, making press standards and regulation another one would not command popular support and would waste time and energy. He shared my analysis that standards were worsening and that it was damaging the country and our culture – hence his ‘feral beast’ speech on the media shortly before he left office – but not that it was a priority. I argued that it was a genuine issue which in the public interest had to be addressed.
A vignette. Like David Cameron, like Gordon Brown, like many others in politics, I attended Rebekah Wade’s wedding to Charlie Brooks when Labour was still in power. At the time, Fiona and I were friendly with her, a friendship that waned when we lost power, and she moved very firmly to the Tories.
At one point, at the reception, I noticed David Cameron standing on his own. I went to talk to him. I said that obviously I hoped he didn’t win the election, but if he did, and if he wanted to do something about the press, then I would be willing to lend any support I could in that. I also said that he would find himself enormously strengthened as Prime Minister if he went in there without worrying about press support. It would free him to do what he thought was right. I also said I felt the importance of the press was diminishing and it was in the interests of the politicians that it did so.
He was engaged but did not exactly look enthusiastic and as he knew by then I was helping Gordon Brown, he was probably on his guard. But we did have a short, civilised conversation, during which I recall him saying ‘It’s got worse, hasn’t it?’
At that point, who should hove into view but Rupert Murdoch? The subject changed when perhaps we should not have allowed it to do so.
Mr Cameron can try to lump me in with Mr Coulson if he wishes. But on the issue of press standards, the uselessness of the Press Complaints Commission, the extent of the phone-hacking scandal, and the need for politicians to be firmer and stronger in the face of the new media culture of negativity, I think Tony Blair would confirm that I have been banging on about this for some years. Jonathan Powell used to call it my ‘stuck record’.
But if he had thought these issues through and showed real leadership and judgement, Mr Cameron would have reached the same position a long time ago.