Friday, 22 July 2011

Did Murdoch spur Cameron’s Afghan flip?

The Daily Star
Friday July 22 2011
By Michael Glackin

The conflagration engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has accounted for more high-profile scalps than Custer’s last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Last week Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Murdoch’s British print business, quit just hours before she was arrested by the police over her role in the now notorious phone-hacking scandal. Andrew Coulson, a former senior British government adviser and close confidante of Prime Minister David Cameron, has also been arrested, and the scandal has even forced two of the United Kingdom’s most senior policemen to resign in disgrace.

Across the Atlantic, the head of Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch acquired in 2007, has also resigned over the hacking scandal. The FBI is now investigating whether reporters working for Murdoch’s newspapers hacked the phones of victims of the 9/11 attacks. An increasing number of American politicians are calling for wider probes into his businesses.

It’s a postscript now to add that all this has resulted in the closure of the U.K.’s biggest selling newspaper, News of the World, the costly abandonment of a $12 billion bid by Murdoch to become the sole owner of the British satellite television station BSkyB, and a decidedly shaky performance by Murdoch himself (even before his wife beat off an attacker armed with a plate of shaving foam) before a House of Commons select committee on Tuesday investigating the scandal.

And this scandal, which began with the exposure of illegal practices by some journalists, has grown to lay bare police corruption and the dubious coziness between Murdoch’s newspapers, particularly The Sun and News of the World, and politicians and police.

Bookmakers are offering odds of 4-1 that Cameron will be forced to resign, down from 100-1 two weeks ago, as the scandal creeps closer to his door. Cameron is linked to this sordid affair via Coulson, who was editor of News of the World when its reporters hacked into the cell phone voice mails of royals, celebrities and, appallingly, murder victims and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is ironic that Cameron was in Afghanistan when the scandal returned to dominate the British news agenda two weeks ago, for there exists a subtle link between Cameron, the Afghan war and Murdoch.

Prior to becoming prime minister, and unlike his predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Cameron was known to be lukewarm about the need to court the Murdoch empire. Cameron briefly worked in television before entering politics and believed that the power of the print press, whose readership is declining, was overrated when compared to television stations, whose audiences continue to expand.

More importantly, at the time Cameron was also lukewarm about pursuing the war in Afghanistan, at a moment when public opinion was rapidly turning against British participation in the conflict. But less than a year before the election that saw him become prime minister, Cameron suddenly struck a hawkish note on the war. The change in heart stemmed in large part from a realization among Cameron’s advisers that Labour could still win and, therefore, that the support of The Sun and News of the World was vital for a Cameron victory.

Murdoch has been a vocal supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has argued that the Iraq war in particular might lead to lower oil prices, therefore to the betterment of Western economies. In 2007, in the run-up to the Australian election, Murdoch publicly warned against withdrawing Australia’s small force in Iraq, a policy supported by the country’s Labour Party, then in opposition. Murdoch, who insisted he knew “a bit about this,” said that such a withdrawal would “rupture” the coalition campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cameron came on board in October 2009, just days after The Sun backed him to become prime minister. In an “exclusive” interview with the newspaper, he criticized the Labour government’s halfhearted commitment to the Afghan war, observing: “Our military is at war in Afghanistan but quite frankly Whitehall isn’t. If I’m prime minister, Whitehall will go to war from minute one, hour one, day one that I walk through the door of Downing Street if I am elected.” Despite declining public support for the Afghan conflict, Cameron also told The Sun that he would deploy more troops to ensure victory.

Downing Street insists today that “there is absolutely no linkage” between its policy in Afghanistan and Murdoch’s views. But part of the problem of the coziness between the Murdoch empire and politicians of all hues is that no one is entirely clear where his influence ends and government policy begins. A commitment from Cameron to vigorously pursue the Afghan war was perhaps not a top priority for Murdoch, but it could have been a sign that Cameron would toe the Murdoch line.

Realistically, the fallout from Murdoch’s woes won’t make any difference to British policy in Afghanistan. Both the United Kingdom and the United States are moving toward the exit. A Foreign Office official confirmed that the first phase of the transition process, which will see Afghan security forces take the lead on security operations in all provinces by 2014, starts this month. And Murdoch’s papers, having gone from “Backing our Boys” fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to “Hacking our Boys,” are unlikely to argue if the timetable is accelerated.

Despite his Afghan conversion, it’s unlikely that the Murdoch affair would have impacted on Cameron had he not hired Coulson. It’s his judgment in belatedly backing a war he cared little for in return for Murdoch’s approval that is more damning. Cameron’s decisions have trapped him in a vise of his own making. If he does become the highest profile victim of this scandal he really will only have himself to blame.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of The Daily Star

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