Very good points here.
------ from Bagehot's notebook, via Google Reader
TWO DAVID Camerons held a press conference this morning in Downing Street. The first was assured and compelling, and pulled off the difficult task of jumping ahead of the news cycle and setting the agenda for what comes next in the ever-widening scandal involving tabloid phone-hacking and the alleged bribery of policemen.
This Mr Cameron did a whole series of smart things. He admitted that leading politicians had spent several years ignoring the signs of widespread misconduct within the British press because they were anxious to have the support of big press and media outlets. He included himself in that camp, and apologised. He promised that in the future relations with leading proprietors, editors and journalists would have to become less cosy if public trust was going to be regained. And he came close to cutting his ties of friendship and loyalty with Rebekah Brooks, the embattled chief executive of News International and former editor of the News of the World, the Sunday tabloid at the centre of the storm which is to be closed this weekend for good. In his own Falstaff-Prince Hal moment, this new, less cosy prime minister noted press reports that Mrs Brooks had offered her resignation (though some at NI deny this), and said:
…as I have said, it’s not right for a Prime Minister to start picking and choosing who should and shouldn’t run media organisations. But it has been reported that she offered her resignation over this. And in this situation, I would have taken it
He announced that there would be a public inquiry chaired by a judge and taking evidence from witnesses on oath. He said it would address three questions. Why did a first police investigation into phone-hacking, conducted in 2006, fail so abysmally? What exactly was going on at the News of the World? And thirdly, what was going on at other newspapers? Independent police investigators would also probe allegations of bribe-taking by police officers, he said.
He announced a second inquiry into a completely new, independent system of press regulation, moving away from the current system of self-regulation. He declared, correctly, that the current Press Complaints Commission had been "absent" during this greatest of scandals. A committee of the great and the good seems to loom.
Then, alas, there was a second David Cameron on display today. Tense, tetchy, defensive and red-faced, he offered a wholly inadequate explanation of why he had hired as his press chief Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World arrested this morning to be questioned about what he knew about phone-hacking on his watch and the alleged corruption of police officers.
Again and again, Mr Cameron returned to the same formula, saying that he had given Mr Coulson a second chance, but that regrettably that second chance had not worked out. He suggested that Mr Coulson had done the decent thing by resigning from the News of the World in 2007 after the jailing of that tabloid's royal correspondent and a private investigator for phone hacking. Mr Cameron had sought assurances and received assurances that despite that resignation, Mr Coulson knew nothing about the wrongdoing in his newsroom. The prime minister revealed that he had commissioned a private company to run a background check on Mr Coulson.
Alas, he said repeatedly, it had not worked out, though—and Mr Cameron kept stressing this, as though frustrated that we hacks could not see the importance of this point—"no one has ever raised serious concerns about how he did his job for me."
This was a wretched defence. Worryingly, if Mr Cameron's tetchiness was at all sincere, he cannot yet see this. Mr Cameron has a big problem, relating to his decision to hire Andy Coulson in 2007, as his director of communications in opposition. He has a truly huge problem relating to his decision to take Mr Coulson with him into government in 2010 as Downing Street director of communications, after the Guardian and other papers had already raised serious allegations about Mr Coulson, notably in 2009.
Talking about giving Mr Coulson a second chance, and how he paid the price once by resigning in 2007, does not help at all. Mr Cameron is not a probation officer, worrying about the rehabilitation of offenders. His responsibility, when hiring Mr Coulson, was less to probe Mr Coulson's past troubles than to assess the present-day suspicion that Mr Coulson is a liar. The problem is that all working journalists with experience of any daily newsroom (including me), simply never, ever believed Mr Coulson's defence that he did not know how his own newspaper was landing some of its juiciest scoops. It was not just an implausible explanation, it was an insult to the intelligence.
Half the political editors and reporters in the room this morning knew of people who had warned Mr Cameron and his closest aides that hiring Mr Coulson was a grave error. Some of those in the room had probably passed on such warnings themselves. That explains the sense of real frustration on the side of the press: this clever man at the podium was defending a nonsensical argument.
If Mr Cameron had not hired Mr Coulson, this whole sordid saga would be mostly about the past, and acts that took place under a different government. By hiring Mr Coulson, this saga is squarely about Mr Cameron's judgement.
Here is why this all matters, and why it is not going away.
1. Mr Cameron was peppered with questions today about what he knew and when did he know it. He was asked if he knew that the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, had warned his aides about specific, serious allegations involving Mr Coulson that had yet to emerge. He was asked if he had been warned or knew of the existence of emails apparently showing that payments were made to corrupt policemen by the News of the World. He told us he did not know about those emails, and more broadly told us he wasn't given any "specific, actionable information" about Andy Coulson and wrongdoing.
Such questions are only going to increase in number. Mr Cameron is going to need a good, reassuring answer for every single one of them.
2. Mr Cameron's image as a decent, honourable man, his personal brand as the ultimate guarantor that this is a new, moderate Conservative Party, is on the line now.
The most revealing moment of the entire press conference for me came when Mr Cameron was asked a question about whether this was a moment of reputational damage to compare with Tony Blair and the Iraq war. In answering that this situation was not like the Iraq crisis at all, Mr Cameron—off his own bat—said it was also nonsense to compare it with money for tobacco advertising.
That was a reference to a smaller, earlier scandal involving Tony Blair and Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss. That affair blew up very early in Mr Blair's time in office (Mr Ecclestone had given a donation to the Labour Party in 1997, and months later, the new Labour government proposed giving Formula 1 a lucrative exemption from a ban on tobacco advertising. Though there was no suggestion of impropriety by Mr Ecclestone, there was a big fuss, and in the end, the donation was repaid). At that time, Mr Blair used his post-election honeymoon aura to downplay the allegations of favours being bought, saying that voters knew he was a "pretty straight sort of guy". Later, as public distrust of Mr Blair grew, the moment would come to be seen as a symbol of the disenchantments that lay ahead.
Was the Ecclestone reference a slip of the tongue? Or a revelation about what is seething within Mr Cameron's brain, as he grapples with the first big threat to his own image, so central to his project of detoxifying the Tories? Is Mr Cameron worrying that this is the moment people start to question the idea that he is a pretty straight sort of guy?