Letting in the Air or Pouring on Fuel?

What happens when behaviour that used to be ‘normal’ suddenly becomes potentially toxic for a politician? This is the problem facing some of the most senior members of the government as the hacking scandal unfolds.  Since Thatcher’s day, regular meetings with members of News International have been part and parcel of being (and, some would argue, staying) in power in the UK. Only now it has become dangerous and damaging.

David Cameron, George Osborne and others are in a potentially tricky position. All long advocates of transparency, one of their responses to the unfolding hacking crisis has been to pro-actively publish details of all their meetings with News International(see here), perhaps taking a leaf from Alex Salmond’s book who ‘killed’ a story about collusion with Donald Trump by publishing all he had.

This counter-attack by transparency is a gamble. Instead of smothering the story with the disinfectant of sunlight, it could add fuel to the ‘firestorm’. One of the difficulties is that this information reveals just how many meetings took place, as this recent bureau of investigative journalism analysis shows and this guardian number crunching. This is not unusual but in the light of the two weeks of allegations looks poisonous. What, people may ask, were all these meetings about? What was discussed?

This leads on to the second problem, which is that the transparency only goes so far. There are no minutes of what was or was not said during these meetings. David Cameron, for example, has said he had no ‘inappropriate’ discussions with Murdoch about his ongoing (now dropped) bid for a larger stake in BskyB. It’s not clear what this means or, indeed, if we could ever find out.

Tom Watson MP, who has been pursuing the hacking case for a number of years, believes that the scandal still has a long way to go. It’s often said that yesterday’s headlines soon becomes today’s chip paper. But can it work backwards? As the scandal unfolds pieces of a very complex jigsaw assume new significance. Can last month’s innocuous information, placed on a website, become tomorrow’s time bomb?

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