An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

“A reluctance to confront a really difficult situation”

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As Norman Geras may have been hinting at in this post from a few weeks ago, the web is currently blessed with or cursed by (depending on your point of view) a glut of opinion. Just as all the best jokes are taken within minutes of a story breaking, so is it difficult to write anything particularly original about the major issues if you have spent any longer than five minutes reading about it online, unless you rush for the extremities or stir controversy for controversy’s sake.

That’s why Anthony Lane’s artful piece for the New Yorker is deservedly one of the most linked to articles about Wapping-gate. It doesn’t try to remodel the world around the present scandal, nor over-dramatise what is already a dramatic tale. It simply and lucidly explains to an international audience what has happened, and what it means for our body politic (that is, as far as Cameron is concerned, not all that much).

Of all the charges being levelled, the social one—that the Prime Minister was fraternizing with the wrong sort—is at once the most splenetic and the weakest, especially to anyone familiar with the dance that politicians and newspapers have led one another in the past hundred years. No waltz could have been merrier than the weekend gathering in November, 1923, at Cherkley Court, a resplendent country house, in Surrey. The guests included David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain (a former Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Lord Birkenhead, until recently Lord Chancellor. Their plan was to discomfit the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and form a new coalition—a scheme abetted by their host, Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express, then a newspaper of great potency and reach. “I think Baldwin will be defeated,” Beaverbrook wired to another press baron, Lord Rothermere, who owned not just the Daily Mail but also the Daily Mirror. Later, in the Second World War, Beaverbrook became, at Churchill’s invitation, Minister of Aircraft Production. His colleague Ernest Bevin, the wartime Minister of Labour, said that, when it came to Beaverbrook, Churchill “was like a man who’s married a whore; he knows she’s a whore but he loves her just the same.” Churchill himself, incidentally, once wrote for the News of the World.

The joke is that the anti-Baldwin plotting petered out; when it comes to moguls and ministers, not all convenings are conspiracies, and few conspiracies succeed. It is natural, in the present frenzy, that Carl Bernstein, writing in Newsweek, should claim that comparisons with the Watergate affair are “inevitable.” But is that so? On the Presidential watch, men were hired to commit criminal acts; Cameron, by comparison, took on a man, Coulson, who had been tarnished by association with criminality, and gave him a respectable (if serpentine) job, which by all accounts Coulson performed with aplomb. The Prime Minister erred, but was he guilty of anything darker than lousy judgment? Ian Katz, the deputy editor of the Guardian, may well be right when he says, “The conspiracy reading is that Cameron wasn’t prepared to risk the ire of News International by dumping Coulson overboard, because once he dumped Coulson, the whole thing would chase back up the ladder towards Murdoch. I don’t really buy that. I think it was more a combination of arrogance and a reluctance to confront a really difficult situation.”

Read more here.

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Written by samelliot

July 29, 2011 at 11:16 am

Posted in Media

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