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Cameron ‘Weakened’ by Scandal, But Appears to Be Out of Immediate Danger

July 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Prime Minister David Cameron came under tough questioning Wednesday before Parliament about his link to the News of the World's phone-hacking scandal. Gwen Ifill discusses how a media scandal has turned into a political one with The Guardian's Richard Adams and the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Heather Conley.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the how a British media scandal has turned into a political one, we turn to Richard Adams, the correspondent for British newspaper The Guardian, and Heather Conley, director and senior fellow of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Richard Adams, that’s the question. How did this start as a media scandal, and how did it become, as we saw just now on the floor of parliament, a government scandal?

RICHARD ADAMS, The Guardian: Well, the linkage between the two is in the person of Andy Coulson, who was the editor of the News of the World when some of the events, the phone-hacking, took place.

And the fact that he was hired by the man who was then leader of the opposition and is now the prime minister, David Cameron, the person of Coulson links the two. British politicians have always had close links with media magnates. And Rupert Murdoch is no stranger to Number 10; that’s true.

But Coulson…

GWEN IFILL: Number 10 Downing Street.

RICHARD ADAMS: Number 10 Downing Street. My apologies.

But Coulson — the hiring of Coulson took things a step further. And Cameron’s links with Rupert Murdoch, with News Corporation, with News International were probably — formal and informal links were very strong. And that’s what we have seen.

GWEN IFILL: You just saw David Miliband leading the question in many ways of the prime minister. What is his role in all of this?

HEATHER CONLEY, Director and Senior Fellow of the Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, it’s been very unclear.

Ed Miliband has really yet to…

GWEN IFILL: Ed Miliband. Sorry about that.

HEATHER CONLEY: That’s right. David was his brother, exactly, former foreign minister.

He has really yet to find, I think, his voice as the opposition leader. And it’s a question of whether this is, in fact, an opportunity. But I think Labor has to be very careful. As it was very clear from the question period today, Labor has some problems here as well, from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

They, too, had very close ties with News Corp. And this is really an important opportunity for the U.K. to investigate these linkages between the media, the parliament, Number 10 Downing Street, and the media, and try to resolve and bring some transparency to a relationship that has been very opaque and, quite frankly, very disturbing when it comes to illegal activities.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this week, when the prime minister had to cut short a trip he was on to Africa, come back to deal with these charges, there was lots of speculation that this was a real — this was going to present a real threat to his coalition.

What does it sound like, feel like tonight?

RICHARD ADAMS: Well, it feels like tonight that Cameron did a pretty good job. I mean, he spent a couple of hours in the House of Commons taking on all comers, trying to answer all questions.

He stumbled a couple of times. He refused to answer a question about discussions that he’d had with News International about the takeover of the satellite TV channel BSkyB. And there were a couple of other instances where he didn’t possibly do so well.

But I think, overall, he’s pretty solidly backed by his party. In the way that the British politics works, as long as he has the support of his party, he’s safe. He went to a meeting of backbench M.P.s after his statement and he was given the equivalent of a standing ovation.

So as long as he retains the internal support, then he’s pretty strong. Any talk about him resigning is one thing. He’s weakened, certainly, but otherwise he’s still in place.

GWEN IFILL: You agree he’s out of immediate danger for this — on this issue?

HEATHER CONLEY: I do. I think curtailing his trip to Africa, coming back, taking the bull by the horns, if you will, and answering the questions, he’s safe now.

I think, as we let the judicial inquiry which was unveiled today and the six panelists who will be looking very closely into the issue, if we don’t have any further revelations — and I think what Richard said about the Andy Coulson connection, what was left unclear is if further revelations are discovered, if his role as director of communications brought something untoward into Number 10, I think that draws more questions into it.

But as long as that doesn’t happen, the Conservatives remain strongly behind the prime minister, I think he’s OK. But what does a weakened prime minister do to a domestic agenda, austerity measures, massive domestic reform? This doesn’t make those very difficult policy implementations any easier. And that’s what we need to watch.

GWEN IFILL: You know, it’s interesting. When we watch this, we Americans watch what happens on the question time and then challenges like we just saw play out on the floor of parliament, we can’t imagine that happening here in Congress.

But also the question — but the more immediate question is whether we can imagine the kind of coziness that apparently existed with politicians in Britain and the Murdoch empire happening here. Is this something which is new or is it something which has always been?

RICHARD ADAMS: Well, there has always been a close relationship between politicians and the media and business in general.

British politics is more informal, and there are fewer rules. There are not the sort of transparency measures that are quite standard here in the U.S., although there’s been changes in recent years. But I think Cameron’s relationship with Murdoch and with News Corporation, News International and some of the figures within it was — was at a slightly different level.

He embraced them very tightly. And that was actually seen as one of his strength when he became Conservative leader, that he would win their support. That’s now not looking so good.

GWEN IFILL: Is transparency the issue here? Or is it the potential for criminality?

HEATHER CONLEY: Well, I think it’s both.

Certainly this scandal puts criminality at its base and what happened and how long and who knew about it. But it goes to the point of transparency and making sure that — and I think this is, again, what this judicial inquiry is going to bring about, hopefully some recommendations on how to prevent this type of such — it’s almost incestuous, if you will — of this close, close relationship. We have to break it apart.

The fourth estate is critical. It provides the checks and balances. And I think we have seen in this particular case — now, again, tabloid media is slightly different, but the fourth estate could not do its important job of checks and balances because it was too close and too associated with government.

I think, to me, it underscores the importance of the role of media, but where a slippery slope can quickly turn, that the media, in fact, is part of the problem, part of the political challenge.

GWEN IFILL: I think we could call this an icy slope in this case.

HEATHER CONLEY: Very.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about this question about other things which get knocked to the back burner when scandals like this consume.

Are there other issues that a weakened prime minister will be unable to address specifically because he’s trying to dig himself out of this particular ditch?

RICHARD ADAMS: Well, the major one at the moment involves Britain’s European partners. Although Britain is not a member of the euro, it certainly will share in some of the fallout, the economic consequences of, say, a default in Greece, some talk about Italy.

So, you know, of course, Britain’s economic ties to Europe are very, very strong, even though it’s not a member of the single currency. That, I would think, would be the major one.

GWEN IFILL: But is this a huge distraction, Heather?

HEATHER CONLEY: It is. I — And, absolutely, while we’re focusing today on this scandal, tomorrow’s main event is an emergency summit of the 17 Eurozone members that are going to try to figure out a way to save Greece from insolvency. And it’s far from clear whether that will happen.

What we have seen over the last couple of days is a downward pressure on so-called healthy economies, Spain, Italy. This is going to have a major ripple effect across Europe, into the United States, the global economy.

GWEN IFILL: And what role was Great Britain supposed to play in this?

HEATHER CONLEY: Well, I mean, the U.K. has always had a very special relationship with the E.U. It’s not part of the Eurozone. It has opted out of that. It’s a standoffish relationship.

But it still sees the full impact of this, because, quite frankly, the British economy is struggling with its own level of debt. It wants to see greater economic growth. That’s why the prime minister initiated last fall a comprehensive spending review, some severe austerity measures. We saw riots, university students that were very unhappy with these fees, trying to reform the national health service.

I mean, these are all economic issues, trying to get ahead of these problems. But the European economic crisis is going to wash right up on the U.K.’s shores. We haven’t talked about Libya and the role the U.K. is playing in that, Afghanistan. This is all a distraction from a major geopolitical agenda.

GWEN IFILL: Well, with all of those things on his plate, though, Richard — I mean, David Cameron — I’m getting everyone’s names mixed up tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: He lives to fight another day?

RICHARD ADAMS: Yes, I think so.

As you said earlier, there are a number of investigations. There’s a criminal investigation. We will be finding out. There will be a drip feed of emails, of reports, of parliamentary select committees. And, you know, this will continue to be a bad news story for David Cameron. How much worse it gets depends on the contents of some of those emails.

GWEN IFILL: OK. I guess we have no choice but to watch.

Richard Adams, Heather Conley, thank you both very much.