Democracy cannot survive without a free press willing and able to act as a check on government power and behaviour.
The relationship between the government and the media should therefore be adversarial – although it was thuggish of David Cameron’s government to dispatch the Cabinet Secretary to the Guardian’s offices to bully them into destroying their computers in the wake of the Edward Snowden scandal, rather this terrible, flagrant abuse of power than the chilling alternative of Sir Jeremy Heywood popping by every single afternoon for tea, chitchat and a list of government-sanctioned news stories for publication.
But it is this latter, far more insidious type of close, symbiotic relationship that has been prevalent between parts of the British media and the politicians on whom they report and are supposed to keep in check.
Former prime minister Tony Blair may no longer occupy Number 10 Downing Street, but the self-evident warmth of his newly revealed correspondence with Rebekah Brooks – former chief executive of News International, now on trial for her alleged role in the phone hacking scandal – shows just how overfamiliar those in power can get to those who lead the publications who supposedly scrutinise them.
The following exchange of text messages between Tony Blair and Brooks on the day after her resignation, reported by The Guardian, really says it all:
Tony Blair: If you’re still going to parliament you should call me. I have experience of these things! Tx
Rebekah Brooks: Definitely depends on the police interview first. I have Stephen Parkinson [a lawyer] here today. I have never met him but people say he is good.
Tony Blair: He’s excellent.
Rebekah Brooks: Great news. Feeling properly terrified. Police are behaving so badly.
Tony Blair: Everyone panics in these situations and they will feel they have their reputation to recover. Assume you have quality QC advice? When’s the interview?
Rebekah Brooks: Sunday probably or Monday. Cms committee. Tuesday. Stephen bringing someone called Emma Hodges and we have QC.
Tony Blair: That’s good. I’m no use on police stuff but call me after that because I may be some help on Commons.
Rebekah Brooks: Great. Will do. X
There are two issues here. The first is the impropriety of a former UK prime minister essentially offering coaching to someone involved in a very current public scandal before they are due to give evidence at a parliamentary committee hearing. While there may be no legal prohibition on this type of interaction, it seems very morally dubious. Were the subject of the hearing about anything else it could perhaps be overlooked, but since it was a hearing of the Culture Select Committee specifically on the allegations of phone hacking and the issues raised about the behaviour of the press, Blair’s offer of counsel and friendly support seems to put him squarely on the side of the alleged perpetrators rather than the victims.
The second issue is the self-evident friendship between the former news executive and the former politician. Friendships such as these are forged over time, some of which was doubtless while Tony Blair was still prime minister. If Tony Blair’s regard for Rebekah Brooks is such that he was offering her emotional support via text message at the height of the phone hacking scandal, what other acts of friendship was he bestowing upon her while he still occupied Number 10 Downing Street? And how might the publications that Brooks ran have reflected this friendship?
Some might argue that it is unfair to question the nature of this friendship. They are wrong – it is entirely appropriate. Serving as prime minister comes with certain responsibilities and standards of behaviour. It may not be part of the oath of office, but one of those responsibilities is surely to maintain professional relationships with business and the media. If both Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks were doing their jobs properly during the period of his premiership, this would almost certainly have precluded any meaningful friendship from forming. If, however, they were behaving toward each other then as they apparently do so now, everything suddenly makes a lot more sense.
While the release of Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks’ text message correspondence doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know – that our elected leaders are sometimes far too close to the press barons who help to control the news agenda – seeing the evidence in black and white is still unsettling.
Recalling Tony Blair as prime minister and then juxtaposing this new image of “T” sending kiss-laden text messages to the woman who then edited Britain’s most-read newspaper casts that era in a whole new, sordid light. The dirty, illicit feeling that reading these messages evokes would be more at home in the television series “House of Cards” than real-world Britain.
We deserve better from our politicians, and from the news media.