Hamlet: Or did you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That's a fair thought, to lie between maid's legs.
London—The Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, to give the proceedings unfolding in the Royal Courts of Justice their full title, has rewarded its faithful followers with an ample supply of low farce and even, in the accounts of some of the victims of phone hacking, some moments of high tragedy. But this week’s testimony by Prime Minister David Cameron was the first time your correspondent felt impelled to brush up his Shakespeare.
Thursday’s grilling went on for five hours, none of which is likely to be remembered as one of Cameron’s finest. He gave an account of the 1,403 meetings he had with journalists as leader of the opposition. He claimed, with a straight face, that he hired Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who resigned over the phone hacking scandal and has since been arrested, because he was the only tabloid editor available at the time. He squirmed a bit when Robert Jay, the Inquiry counsel, read out an October 2009 text message from Rebekah Brooks, a former Sun and News of the World editor promoted by Rupert Murdoch to run the parent company News International. Even though we already knew that Cameron was wont to sign his own texts to Brooks “LOL”—until she informed him that wasn’t an abbreviation for “Lots of Love”—the cloying tone of this communiqué reached a crescendo with Brooks’s declaration that she would be “so rooting for you tomorrow [during Cameron’s speech at the Tory party conference] not just as a proud friend but because professionally we're definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam.”
So that’s what he meant by “We’re all in this together”—the Conservative party campaign slogan. Still, as I watched Cameron give what my Tory journalist friend Andrew Gimson aptly termed “a masterclass in the mellifluous deflection of blame,” I couldn’t help worrying over an earlier part of Brooks’s text message, where she suggested that any froideur remaining between the Times and Cameron over his failure to appear at a News International party the previous evening could be dispelled “over country supper.”
It has been a mostly unspoken—because universally understood—aspect of the phone hacking scandal that every time Rebekah Brooks appears, the story gets new legs precisely because her own are so shapely. The photographs of Brooks in a Peter Pan collar, raven tresses streaming, that decorated the front pages after her arrest last month were like Christmas in May on Fleet Street. Ed Milliband’s eminently sensible suggestion, on Tuesday, that there should be a legal limit on how much of the British media market one person should control was simply no competition.
Even if Brooks was knowingly alluding to Hamlet’s bawdy pun in her text to Cameron, the element of sex scandal has been sadly lacking throughout the Murdoch saga. Rebekah Brooks may be a world-class toadie, but her claim on David Cameron’s attention was as the wife of one of his oldest friends, his fellow Old Etonian Charlie Brooks. Hopeful readers might protest that even a nodding acquaintance with the novels of Jilly Cooper suggests an awful lot of neighing and whinnying among the horsey set. However, Cameron’s lunchtime telephone call to his wife yesterday, in which he asked her help in calculating just how often he’d met with Rebekah Brooks and then relayed the results to Judge Leveson, indicates a man with a clean conscience—at least where country matters are concerned.
He was easily able, therefore, to deflect the innuendo in Robert Jay’s query as to whether a “country supper” was “the sort of interaction you often had” with Brooks by a brusque “Yes. We were neighbours.” David Cameron met with Rupert Murdoch ten times as leader of the opposition. He met James Murdoch fifteen times and Rebekah Brooks nineteen times. After the election, in December 2010, he met James at a Christmas dinner at Brooks’s house where the Murdochs’ bid to take control of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB was discussed. When Vince Cable, the business secretary in charge of deciding on the BSkyB bid, revealed that he was prejudiced against the Murdochs, Cameron removed Cable from the process and replaced him with Jeremy Hunt, whom he knew was prejudiced in their favor. Cameron also showed himself willing to do Murdoch’s bidding on any number of issues, ranging from reining in the BBC to hobbling the independent communications regulator Ofcom.
But it seemed pretty clear on Thursday that David Cameron did not have sex with that woman. If only he had.