Green party leader Natalie Bennett says that the hacking affair shows how politics is still dominated by big business and back-room meetings with media bosses.
Commentators, politicians and the public are entirely right to quiz the PM over how he could possibly have brought Andy Coulson into Number 10 given the baggage he came with. But it’s not only Cameron who should be feeling the heat from the blowout of the hacking affair. It is the tired business-as-usual nature of British politics and business that has been thrust under the microscope.
And it’s important that the usual Punch and Judy show of prime minister’s questions doesn’t distract from this important wider debate, which for the media has stalled since the Leveson inquiry recommendations were kicked into the long grass and has never really got going when it comes to other areas of public life. The oh-so cosy web of personal and social relationships that link leading journalists, media moguls, big business barons and prominent politicians from all the major parties needs to be the focus – a far broader issue than just the Prime Minister’s friends.
At the centre of Cameron’s web is Chipping Norton, the Oxfordshire market town which sits in his Witney constituency. The Prime Minister’s “country suppers” and horseriding with Rebekah Brooks, the then News International chief executive and former News of the World editor, are no crime in themselves. Indeed, that Brooks's friendship with Sarah Brown, ex-PM Gordon Brown’s wife, was so close that she attended a "pyjama party" hosted by the PM's wife, with Elisabeth Murdoch and Rupert's then wife Wendi Deng, at Chequers, is (just about) fine in isolation. But seen as part of a bigger picture, in which a closed circle of elected and unelected power brokers make deals over sausage rolls warmed in the Agas in Chipping Norton, or the expense-account specialist restaurants in the City of London, is something that should be of concern to those of us who cherish democratic decision-making and oppose the increasing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
Our current mess was encouraged by the extremely concentrated nature of media ownership in Britain. When there are just two groups controlling well over half of newspaper market share, with one of those the vastly dominant player in the pay TV market as well, it’s no surprise that cosying up seems natural to political players.
The events of recent days are just a reminder that to protect – to improve – democracy in Britain that concentration has to be broken up. The thresholds suggested by the Media Reform Coalition would be a good place to start.
But this goes far beyond media. On health, to change to the Opposition side of politics, that Alan Milburn, former Labour Health Secretary, should be on a Price Waterhouse Coopers board overseeing its healthcare practice (a company that boasts it has “acted on more privatisations than any other financial adviser”), while also being chairman of the European Advisory Board of Bridgepoint Capital, the private equity investors behind NHS outsource bidder Care UK, should be a cause for grave concern.
On energy policy, Green MP Caroline Lucas has been a lone voice highlighting the well used revolving door that exists between the Big Six energy companies and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. It seems like an obvious point to make, but the energy firms do not lend their staff to government for nothing – they expect a certain degree of influence, insider knowledge and preferential treatment in return.
The hacking affair has not just shamed Mr Cameron. It has shone a light on the way in which Britain’s politicians hob-nob with big business, do deals in back-room meetings and sidle up to the media to gain favourable coverage.
The watered down lobbying register does not do even half of what’s required.We need to go much further, including proper requirements for financial disclosure - so we can know exactly who is spending money – Civil Servants to be covered by the lobbying rules; and a proper investigation into potential for conflicts of interest that arise as a result of the revolving door that exists between Whitehall and the private sector.
The Green Party is not part of the Chipping Norton Set and it never will be. We say instead that we need to draw a firm and principled line between commercial and democratic interests, and need a degree of lobbying transparency that would give voters the confidence that a public servant or minister is making decisions based on independent, expert advice and evidence. Put another way: if they are being influenced, directly or indirectly, by their drinking or riding mates we need to know about it.
Achieving that means drawing our politicians from a far broader range of backgrounds than is currently the case, insisting as a matter of principle that they don’t take their knowledge and contacts into lucrative private hands, and maintaining strong departments of public servants with the skills and knowledge that comes from years of stable employment. And, critically, breaking up our media oligopoly.