Hackgate: “This may be a story for years to come…”

So says the FT media editor Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. It’s a good conversation, but it’s also the kind of thing we all say when we really don’t know what’s going to happen next.

And there’s a good deal of impatience around this story. Last night saw an ill-tempered spat on Twitter last night, between the Labour MP Tom Watson who’s been driving a lot of the political force (in initial defiance from his party leader), and the BBC’s Robert Peston, because the BBC’s Business Editor was not giving air to today’s Guardian lead, ie the allegations by two former NI executives that James Murdoch misled the Commons Committee on Tuesday.

It’s an indication of the multiplicity of forces ranged in this fight. But it’s not yet who, if anyone, is going to sustain the most long term damage. Thanks to what was a one man campaign by Guido, the newly sainted (by CNN) Piers Morgan is now coming under scrutiny in the US for allegedly employing similar practices at the Mirror.

Penultimate word to Martin Kettle who gets close to scoping the possible implications of this most inchoate of political crises:

The sheer proliferation of other inquiries announced this week is evidence of contradictory impulses: these range from a high-minded, slightly old-fashioned desire to discover the truth and draw the right conclusions, to something close to ministerial panic. Policing, in particular, is now entangled in a series of inquiries which are potentially very significant, but which lack much logical coherence of any kind other than the desire to shut the subjects down. If nothing else, the lesson of the last three weeks that Cameron needs to learn is to sharpen up his team.

Politically, the question about the phone-hacking crisis is this: where will it ultimately stand on the spectrum of damage that stretches from Watergate, which brought a president down, to the Bernie Ecclestone deal, a sordid error which caused Tony Blair not much more than embarrassment? Right now, the answer is that no one knows. Phone hacking retains the potential to be either. Cameron has handled much of the crisis with his usual reliable feel for modern politics. But he has also revealed a what-the-hell insouciance that may yet prove his achilles’ heel.

Sharpening up his team may not even suffice. Cameron is not a classic team player. Don’t get me wrong, he delegates responsibility to an extent unseen under the previous two PMs, but he’s no team captain. His performance at the box was bravura, raising his voice in anger at the thought that he might have been duped by Coulson (who the Scottish courts want to see before them over allegations that he might have been lying to them) and thereby falling in with the public mood, yet avoiding any sense of capitulation.

But it came after a day when the Westminster press almost knocked themselves out speculating why no one on the Tory benches had come to his defence. They didn’t come to his defence, it seems, because Mr Cameron had not told anyone what the line was to be. Not even his party chair.

Norman Tebbitt probably gets closer to the problem in Number 10 which gave rise to a problem which by and large might otherwise have stuck to the opposition:

This affair has shown up the prime minister’s lack of ability, or will, to think things through. Whether it is a proposal to sell Forestry Commission assets, or to go overboard in uncritical welcome of the “Arab spring”, there is a lack of critical assessment of what may look like a good idea at the time but turns out to have rather more complications. The time, energy and political capital needed to then get the decision right is far too great.

More ominously:

It may be that we will realise somewhere down the line that while the attention of the political class, parliament, government, media and the police affair has been so focused on the political fallout of the Murdoch affair, other even more dangerous threats have not been receiving the attention they deserved.

Time for a little more prose and a little less poetry?

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  • Independent Ulster

    Cameron’s relative isolation is partly down to the self interest of Tory MPs who are understandably not keen to align themsleves with a PM who remains under close scrutiny for his cosy relationship with Coulson and News International but also because it affords those on the right of the party the opportunity to remind him of his failing to deliver a Conservative government and for backtracking on NHS reforms.

    Cameron’s resignation, although unlikely, could result from details of those conversations he held with News International being leaked and revealed after all to be ‘inappropriate’ and the Government would then be forced to appoint a Gordon Brown style unelected leader or face into an election.

    With Labour leading in the polls Tory right may have already missed their best opportunity for decades

  • Rory Carr

    Tom Watson’s admonition to Robert Peston not to be “a patsy” of News International with its connotation that Peston is allowing himself to be used by former FT colleague, present Muswell Hill neighbour and bosom buddy with whom he goes on holiday, NI General Manager, Will Lewis is quite tame when compared with much of the speculation about Peston’s selective reporting of this whole affair not least this ‘death-by-a-thousand-cuts’ article from Michael Seamark at Mail Online:

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/6f333cv

    Pay particular attention to the list of Peston articles in the framed box at the bottom of the page with the strapline :

    A SERIES OF SCOOPS…AND COULSON WAS THE FALL GUY.

  • pauluk

    Mark my words, once left-wing, liberal journalists become implicated, the mainstream media will drop this `scandal` like a hot potato. The Guardian, and, to a little lesser degree, the BBC have been obsessed with trying to damage Murdoch and both big and small `c`s`, but they`ll soon shy off when it starts coming back on their own, like Morgan, for example.

  • Mick Fealty

    Rory,

    That Mail (which title Paul Dacre, implausibly, argues has never hacked) article is pretty much all man and no ball.