Roving thoughts and provocations

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Downing Street Liars’ Club

Tony Blair; drawing by David Levine

One of the best traditions of English public life is the official inquiry, sometimes parliamentary, sometimes judicial. What gives them their value isn’t the conclusions they come to, which can be perverse or distorted by partisanship, but the evidence they hear and place on record. That’s true of a number of inquiries related to the Iraq war, including those of Hutton, Butler, and Chilcot. The last is still meeting in interminable conclave and who knows when the report will appear, but what we’ve learned at the hearings is riveting enough: despite the serpentine evasions of former Prime Minister Tony Blair himself, the evidence accumulates that he gravely and willfully misled Parliament and the people in order to take us to war.

And so with the Leveson inquiry into the press. Whatever recommendations Lord Justice Leveson eventually makes, we have been spellbound by the testimony he has heard. To add a certain amusement value, the last few weeks have been notable for utterly contradictory testimony from different witnesses, several of them present or former leaders of the country.

Over recent days, we’ve heard former Prime Minister Gordon Brown flatly deny that he had made the telephone call to Rupert Murdoch in September 2009 in which, according to Murdoch’s earlier testimony, Brown had threatened to “make war” on Murdoch after the Sun had switched its support to the Tories. We’ve heard Sir John Major, our antepenultimate prime minister, say that Murdoch once demanded directly that the government should change its line on Europe, when Murdoch had earlier said, likewise under oath, that he had never asked anything of any prime minister. We heard Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun in 1992, say that on the night of “Black Wednesday,” the expensive debacle that September when the pound sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, he had told Major, “I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.” And now we have Major saying that he had learned of this “alleged conversation with a degree of wonder and surprise,” since he has no recollection of it.

Before long someone will have to award a Pinocchio Prize for Leveson witnesses. They can’t all be telling the truth.

Then there is current Primer Minister David Cameron. He was looking silly enough after Rebekah Brooks—another former editor of the Sun, and Murdoch favorite, who was recently charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice—was called before the inquiry on May 11 and questioned about the text messages she and Cameron had exchanged, with Rebekah having to explain to Dave that “lol” as a valediction meant “laugh out loud” and not “lots of love.” Now, with his own appearance before Leveson, we have been shown yet another text message, Brooks’s billet doux sent to him on October 7, 2009, just as he was about to give his last Conservative Conference speech before the spring election. It is worth recording in full:

But seriously I do understand the issue with the Times. Let’s discuss over country supper soon. On the party it was because I had asked a number of NI people to Manchester post endorsement and they were disappointed not to see you. But as always Sam was wonderful (and I thought it was OE’s were charm personified!) I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!.

To deconstruct, “NI” is News International, Murdoch’s British company, of which Brooks had just become chief executive. One of its papers is the Times, which was not giving Cameron the support he wanted. Sam is Samantha Cameron, David’s wife, OEs are Old Etonians, such as Cameron and Charlie Brooks, Rebekah’s husband. “Yes he Cam!” is a gruesome play on Barack Obama’s slogan, which then became the Sun’s front page headline the next day. “We’re definitely in this together” means just what it says. Quite what a “country supper” may be has been much debated. Maybe it’s a term found in “Aga sagas,” those saucy novels about rural life, but it was evidently something Rebekah and Charlie, Dave and Sam, enjoyed together. We already knew about Cameron’s intimacy with the Brookses, but his reputation can’t survive many more such revelations.

But Cameron’s performance was almost outdone by Gordon Brown’s, whose appearance at Leveson three days earlier was excruciating, reminding us again how painful it always was to watch this strange, clever, tormented, damaged man when he was prime minister, writhing like a gored bull under the pressure of events. Blair or Cameron may be no more veracious but they can recite suggestio falsi and suppressio veri quite smoothly, whereas Brown shudders and contorts when he is saying something that is not the case. Indeed, and surprising as it may sound, some of us, if asked to choose between the word of Gordon Brown and that of Rupert Murdoch, would tend to credit Murdoch.

Leave aside any differences Brown had with Murdoch. Anyone at all close to British politics for the past 15 years knows that, for most of his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown turned every fiber of his being to one end: deposing and replacing Tony Blair as prime minister. The two were for long barely on speaking terms, while the vendetta between them was carried out vicariously, and most odiously, by off-the-record media briefings by the henchmen of one man trying to blackguard and undermine the other. Blair’s apparat did this, as when his communications “strategist” Alastair Campbell once told the press—unattributably, of course—that Brown was “psychologically flawed,” though those may be perhaps the only true words Campbell ever spoke. But Brown’s hit squad were even nastier. So when Brown was asked at Leveson whether any of his aides had ever briefed the press in such fashion, his answer—“I would hope not. I have no evidence of that”—was not so much evasive as preposterous, and could only produce a huge guffaw in and about Westminster.

One witness who was interrogated nothing like firmly enough by Leveson—and by Chilcot for that matter—was Campbell himself, the man who gave us, shortly before the invasion, the mendacious “dossiers” about Saddam’s terrifying weaponry ready for use within 45 minutes. Bear in mind that that war, and the way we were misled into it, is overwhelmingly more important than country suppers or Etonian charm. The latest volume of Campbell’s Diaries is about to be published, and is being serialized in the Guardian, in whose pages Polly Toynbee had already, and understandably, remarked on “the sheer vileness” of Campbell’s first volume.

One diary entry is fascinating, though likewise requiring careful close reading. On March 11, 2003, days away from the invasion, Blair

took a call from Murdoch who was pressing on timings, saying how News International would support us, etc. Both TB and I felt it was prompted by Washington, and another example of their over-crude diplomacy.

What does this mean? We knew that Murdoch keenly supported the war, not least because he believed that “the greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel for oil” (not one of his most prescient commercial judgments, as it happens. Since then oil has touched $150, Brent Crude is around $95 as I write, and if the price falls further it will not be because of the “liberation” of Iraq but in fear of a profound worldwide depression ). But why should the Bush administration have been using Murdoch as a go-between, and why did Blair need “pressing” over a war he was longing to begin?

One other story about Leveson has just emerged. In February, the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who once worked for Murdoch (as his wife still does), gave a speech denouncing the Leveson inquiry as a “cure worse than the original disease” that would have a “chilling” effect on journalism. Gove has since appeared at Leveson, as cocky and bumptious as ever while defending Murdoch with a loyalty beyond the call of duty.

We now learn that Lord Justice Leveson privately complained to the Cabinet Secretary about Gove’s speech as a possible attack on the independence of the judiciary. Gove may be happy to act as the Member for Murdoch, but Cameron might try to grasp that the British, if forced to choose between, on the one hand, Murdochia and a corrupt Tory party, and on the other, English traditions, beginning with the rule of law and independent judiciary, is not likely to side with the Tories.

In his evidence to Leveson, Cameron dismissed any idea that the Tories had cut deals with Murdoch as a “conspiracy theory.” That same telltale phrase was used by Blair in one of his last interviews as prime minister, when presented with cast-iron evidence that Downing Street knew, as early as the summer of 2002, that the supposed intelligence about Saddam’s weaponry was being “fixed” after a decision for war had already been taken. As Conor Cruise O’Brien used to say, conspiracies theories may exist, but sometimes there are real conspiracies.

And we are learning more about them, thanks to these sometimes laborious inquiries. Isaiah Berlin said that the 1937 Peel Commission, which investigated what was then still British Mandatory Palestine, might not have had much practical effect but remained the best single examination of that bitter and intractable problem there has been—distinguished not by its conclusions but by the truly remarkable evidence of witnesses, ranging from Ben-Gurion to Arab leaders, from Jabotinsky to Churchill. It absorbs historians to this day, as no doubt the testimony of the Leveson witnesses will absorb future historians.

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