It appears that David Cameron may avoid any further damage over the phone-hacking affair. His immediate apology, issued as soon as the first verdicts were announced yesterday, makes him much harder to attack. The Prime Minister admitted he was wrong to have employed Andy Coulson: “I’m extremely sorry that I employed him. It was the wrong decision and I’m very clear about that.”
This was not one of those mealy-mouthed pseudo-apologies in which some public figure says sorry for any hurt which may have been caused, or for events over which he or she had no control. Cameron took full responsibility for employing Coulson. The Prime Minister cannot be accused of evasiveness on this point.
Which is why his critics have been reduced to saying there are “questions” over his judgment. Ed Miliband claims Cameron has “very, very serious questions to answer”. But it is not this morning at all clear what those questions might be.
For it is not as if Cameron was alone in wishing to get the Murdoch press on side. The last two Labour Prime Ministers courted Rupert Murdoch with if anything even greater assiduity. Accusations that Cameron has “tainted” or “sullied” the pure air of Downing Street are ridiculous.
Cameron is most often accused by Labour of surrounding himself with Old Etonian toffs. The hiring of Coulson does not fit into that narrative. It was plainly an attempt to widen the circle of advice on which the Conservative Leader could call. If Cameron were the snobbish, socially limited toff of Labour caricature, he would never have hired Coulson. Labour is faced by the alarming discovery that Cameron is actually a meritocrat, who respects talent wherever it is found.
The courts are now dealing with the offences committed when journalists hacked phones. Neither for Coulson nor for some others is that process yet complete. But it is plain that laws against this kind of thing exist, and that they are being enforced. The press is not above the law.
But the first verdicts also indicate that not all journalists are crooks. Broad-brush moralising on this topic has become more difficult. The picture is mixed, and now that the law is taking its course, the need for some supplementary system of regulation is much less clear. It is generally quite easy to detect, whether one is reading a newspaper or a website, the spirit in which that publication is being edited. If one is disgusted by a particular publication, one can stop reading it.
It is true that when we sit down to eat breakfast, we may not wish to enquire too closely into the methods by which the sausages were produced, or the means by which the morning’s news was obtained. But these are not questions just for Cameron. Let each of us purify the breakfast table as best we may, and in accordance with the rigour or lenity of our own views.
Any fair-minded person will reflect that the Prime Minister has to make a very large number of appointments, and that some of these are pretty much bound to go wrong. Here is an example of an appointment which did go wrong, and for which an apology has been made. There is no reason why this unhappy event should inflict any lasting damage on Cameron.