x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Unfolding hacking scandal leaves British public thinking 'a plague on all your houses'

David Cameron has tried in vain to shift the news agenda from phone hacking to other topics, such as jobs and budget cuts. But his attempts to present himself as a national, not just party, leader have run into trouble - and the opposition leader, Ed Miliband, is not doing much better.

LONDON // A "Tiger Woman" forced to protect her octogenarian husband from a plate of shaving foam amid suggestions that Britain is sliding into a banana republic. These are not the newspaper reports that David Cameron, the old Etonian prime minister, will have enjoyed reading yesterday.

The perception that Mr Cameron leads a country beset by downright incompetence, as well as age-old class division and political cronyism, was reinforced by the spectacle of police officers at one of the world's oldest parliaments being unable to prevent a protester thrusting a cream pie into the face of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

"It's embarrassing how far this country has fallen," said Susan Brett yesterday morning as she rushed to her accountancy job in the city. "I was riveted as much as anyone by the Murdoch family but there's a lot of work to be done to get this country out of a hole."

Mr Cameron, mired in slumping poll numbers and a fight for political survival, can only have admired the decisive, attacking slap delivered by Wendi Murdoch to her husband's attacker. Mrs Murdoch, a Chinese-born, 42-year-old former News Corp television executive, showed no hesitation to protect her husband as he and his son James testified on Tuesday to MPs. The parliamentary committee is investigating phone hacking, police bribery and other criminal behaviour apparently committed by a select group running Britain.

Mr Cameron has tried in vain to shift the news agenda to other topics that arguably do preoccupy British voters more, such as jobs and budget cuts. But his attempts to present himself as a national, not just party, leader worthy of a senior place on the international stage have run into trouble.

To many in the global audience watching Tuesday's grilling of the Murdochs, Britain "seemed a very small country indeed" that "should finally kill off any vestigial delusions that Britain is run to the ethical standards you might expect of a market trader, let alone a former empire," wrote a columnist in The Guardian.

The British parliament, after conducting a spirited questioning of Mr Cameron during an emergency session yesterday, now goes into summer recess until September 5 and so the prime minister may win some respite.

Thus far, the response of British voters to all the politicians seems to be: a plague on all your houses. No political leader has yet quit although a host of News Corp executives and high-ranking police officers have resigned.

More Britons are unhappy with how Mr Cameron is doing his job than at any point since he took office last May as head of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, according to a Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll released yesterday.

Of those asked, 53 per cent were dissatisfied with Mr Cameron, against 38 per cent who were content. His connections to Mr Murdoch and other News Corp executives had also left few rank-and-file Conservative politicians willing to defend the prime minister in public.

But Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party, has yet to win a decisive boost despite his leading role in criticising Mr Cameron and the police and media misconduct that has been revealed in recent weeks.

Mr Miliband did not have close ties with News Corp, unlike his brother David, the former foreign secretary. Mr Cameron, meanwhile, met News Corp executives almost every two weeks during the last year, much more than any other news organisation.

It remained to be seen how the public would respond to Mr Miliband's performance in yesterday's debate. The Reuters poll, conducted last weekend, showed only 37 per cent of respondents were happy with him, against 44 per cent who were still dissatisfied.

The opinion poll seem to suggest that voters have not forgotten that Labour, when it was in government, appeared just as much in thrall to Mr Murdoch as did the Conservatives.

Although Mr Murdoch tightened his grip over the British media during the 1980s under the Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Labour's Tony Blair was seen courting Mr Murdoch much more assiduously. The former Labour prime minister remains deeply unpopular, partly because of his support of the United States for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was loudly cheered on by Mr Murdoch's media.

Meanwhile, no matter how bad the situation gets for Mr Cameron, the Conservatives can still hope to benefit from a British media that are overwhelmingly to the right.

sdevi@thenational.ae.