Cameron in the hot seat at British media inquiry

Prime Minister David Cameron testifies at the London inquiry on media ethics after the phone-hacking scandal. The questions may have been uncomfortable, but the prime minister was unruffled.
Prime Minister David Cameron testifies at the London inquiry on media ethics after the phone-hacking scandal. The questions may have been uncomfortable, but the prime minister was unruffled. (Associated Press, Pool)
Posted: June 15, 2012

LONDON - He'd already admitted that relations were too tight between politicians and Rupert Murdoch's media empire. But on Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron sat under oath, on the witness stand, answering questions and listening poker-faced as embarrassing evidence of his own coziness was read out loud in court.

The grilling, in which a judge and the investigating lawyer often addressed him as "Mr. Cameron" and not "Prime Minister," was the latest chapter in a judicial inquiry on media ethics that he himself had initiated in light of Britain's phone-hacking scandal.

"This is a ... cathartic moment where press, politicians, police, all the relationships that haven't been right, we have a chance to reset them," Cameron said, as he urged an overhaul of the ties between various pillars of British society. "That is what we must do."

Cameron spent more than four hours testifying Thursday, a highlight of a remarkable week in which three current and former prime ministers gave sworn testimony in a London courtroom. In the United States, it would be as if Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all submitted to questioning by a judge on live national TV on their dealings with the American press corps.

It wasn't a flattering experience.

"I am so rooting for you tomorrow," Rebekah Brooks, head of Murdoch's British newspapers, gushed in a message to Cameron before he gave a key political address in 2009. "Professionally we're definitely in this together. Speech of your life? Yes, he Cam!"

'Nonsense'

It was a revealing look at how close Cameron had become with one of the country's most influential media executives.

For the most part, Cameron was unruffled during his court appearance.

Media-watchers were particularly eager to hear Cameron describe his relationship with media mogul Murdoch, whose favor politicians have eagerly sought for decades in Britain.

When he was leader of the opposition, Cameron flew to a Greek island to woo a vacationing Murdoch. But he denied that there was ever an explicit or implicit deal in which his Conservative Party extended favors to Murdoch's giant News Corp. in return for its editorial support.

"The idea of overt deals is nonsense," Cameron testified Thursday. "I also don't believe in this theory that there was sort of a nod and a wink and some sort of covert agreement."

More specifically, Cameron insisted that there was no special treatment by his government of Murdoch's multibillion-dollar bid to take over British broadcaster BSkyB, one of the media titan's most cherished goals until he abandoned it last year in the aftermath of the hacking scandal.

'LOL'

Perhaps more uncomfortable for Cameron was the peek into his friendship with Brooks, who headed Murdoch's British newspaper operation, News International, until she resigned in disgrace because of the hacking scandal.

Brooks has herself testified before the inquiry on media ethics, telling an amused courtroom how she and Cameron were on close enough terms that he sent her text messages signed "LOL," which he thought meant "lots of love" until she disabused him of that idea.

"Obviously you have to take care [as a politician] when you have personal friendships, but I think that can be done, and I'd like to think I've done that," Cameron told the inquiry.

The judicial inquiry is expected to last several months and to come up with recommendations on regulation of the press. Cameron apologized Thursday to the presiding judge, Brian Leveson, for dropping the "hot potato" in his lap.

"I don't think you sound sorry about doing that at all, actually," Leveson responded dryly, as some in the courtroom laughed out loud.

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