Since late last week, the UK has been convulsed by a press scandal broken, for once, by a U.S. newspaper. The New York Times reported in its magazine last Wednesday that starting in 2005, The News of the World, a British tabloid, hacked into the voicemail accounts of various British worthies, including the princes William and Harry. That disclosure, in itself, was not a scoop; the British public has known about the digital break-ins since shortly after they occurred, as the News and other tabloids went on a bender at the time promoting stolen bits of royal gossip (some of which related to a visit Harry had taken to a strip club, prompting a rival rag, The Sun, to publish the inevitable headline, “Harry buried Face in Margo’s Mega-Boobs. Stripper Jiggled … Prince Giggled”). In fact, it’s been a good three years already since two News of the World employees, royal editor Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, an investigator, were jailed after pleading guilty in the affair.
No, the real bombshell in the Times story lay elsewhere, in two other disclosures. First was the suggestion that culpability for the scandal at the tabloid went all the way to the top–to then editor Andy Coulson, who now happens to be the Conservative government’s chief communications officer. When the original story first broke, Coulson, although he later resigned, insisted that he knew nothing about the hack attacks. Now numerous ex-colleagues have come forward to insist that, on the contrary, Coulson knew exactly what was going on and had encouraged it.
Second, new evidence also suggests that the Metropolitan Police–aka the Met, or Scotland Yard–also knew about the digital snooping, which targeted not just royals but also hundreds of government officials and celebrities–and yet decided not to investigate. These charges prompted howls of outrage over the weekend and calls for a judicial inquiry into the Met’s strange indifference.
All of this puts the government of Prime Minister David Cameron in an awkward position. While it was not in office when the spying occurred, and so is not now responsible for the Met’s apparent dereliction of duty (in the UK, unlike the U.S., cops answer to the national government), it does of course currently employ Coulson and is responsible for him. And as the party in charge, it is now responsible for responding to the scandal.
On a more fundamental level, the affair encapsulates and underscores everything that went wrong with Britain’s political and security culture at the end of the Blair/Brown era. That’s a culture that Cameron and his Liberal Democratic coalition partners–with their emphasis on restoring the primacy of British society at the expense of the state, and on paring back the overweening national security apparatus–have pledged to dismantle. But unless they react adroitly now, they risk undermining those promises, and the most radical part of their government’s agenda, before it even gets off the ground.
To talk in specifics, the hacking scandal reveals three particular flaws in Britain’s political culture, all of which Cameron will have to address if he really wants to make clean break with the past. First is contempt for the rule of law. The tabloid’s nonchalant invasion of privacy, and Scotland Yard’s willingness to look the other way–which senior police figures now say was a result of top cops’ chumminess with the News’ editors and its parent corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s News International–is consistent with the general ethos of cozy corruption that typified British politics for much of the last decade. This attitude was exposed most spectacularly in the parliamentary expenses scandal, which exploded in 2009 when dozens of MPs–Labour and Tories alike–were found to have been gleefully cheating the public by billing the government for all kinds of private indulgences, such as moat-cleaning costs, garden supplies, and hotel-room porn.
A second, and related, problem is the culture of cronyism that flourished during these years. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown famously revolutionized the Labour Party by forcing it to drop its last, vestigial ties to socialism and to embrace big business. As Peter Mandelson (now Lord Mandelson), the architect of Blair’s rise to power, rather infamously declared in 1998, “we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, so long as they pay their taxes.” Labour’s about-face on private capital had a galvanizing effect; not only did it enable the party’s rise to and long grip on power, but it helped drive a sustained surge in the British economy. But apart from the fact that this boom didn’t last, Labour’s laissez faire attitude toward big money had another downside–as Mandelson himself, twice forced to resign in disgrace over corruption allegations–came to personally symbolize. The new scandal, which smacks of yet another improperly close relationship between government and big business (in this case, the cops and the corporate interests they’re supposed to have monitored) seems like another symptom of this disease.
And then, finally, there’s the national security state. In the last decade, the Labour government steadily expanded government’s power at the expense of the individual, chipping away at private liberties by introducing sweeping new police powers, creating vague new crimes, extending the length of pretrial detention for terrorism suspects, and installing an estimated 5 million CCTV cameras around the country (that’s one for about every 12 Britons). Both the Tories and the LibDems campaigned against this erosion of freedom, and since taking office, their coalition has begun trying to undo some of the damage, for example by giving local communities more control over police forces. In the current hacking scandal, the government wasn’t the one doing the spying. But Brits have become so sensitized to the issue over the last few years that the very notion of unauthorized surveillance now strikes some especially unpleasant chords–and requires an especially decisive response to show that, in the new Britain, this sort of thing won’t be tolerated.
Ultimately, the scandal will present both a great risk and a serious opportunity for the fledgling coalition. Cameron can’t be blamed for how the Met behaved under its previous leadership. But he certainly will be judged by how his government responds to the allegations now. And while Cameron may not be on the hook for Scotland Yard, he is for hiring Coulson under what were, at best, questionable circumstances (why pick a disgraced tabloid hack for such a high-profile job in the first place?). This means that Cameron now has to get rid of him, and fast; there’s no way the Tories, who have made good government and the restoration of individual freedoms such a big part of their agenda, can keep on a man has been credibly accused of running an illegal surveillance campaign.
Too often under Blair and Brown, scandals like this were swept under the carpet, dealt with perfunctorily, with the disgraced politician (often Mandelson) being dismissed, only to be quietly hired back a year or two later. The best way Cameron can show that things have really changed is to get rid of Coulson and stay rid of him–and then to press forward with changes that should keep this kind of thing from happening again, such as his government’s promises to return more power to individuals and communities, and to limit the authority of the British state.