It would be hard to make this stuff up. After a year of embarrassing revelations about British Prime Minister David Cameron’s cozy relationship with senior staff at Rupert Murdoch’s News International, two of his most well-connected old friends—Rebekah and Charlie Brooks—have just landed him in another fine mess.
A day after the former CEO of News International and her husband appeared in court to face charges for phone hacking and conspiring to hide evidence from police, The Racing Post carried a story in which Mr. Brooks, a stable owner and horse-racing enthusiast, alleged the prime minister would rather play tennis with him than speak to the president of the United States. Mr. Brooks told The Racing Post: “We’re pretty good friends. I played tennis with him at Chequers [the prime minister’s official residence] one day. I won the first set easily, then he won the second set, and then someone came up to him and said, ‘Er... Mr. Obama is on the phone for you, Prime Minister.’ He said: ‘I think we’ve got time for a third set—tell Mr. Obama I’ll ring him back.’”
Downing Street denied the report, reporting that Cameron and Brooks only played tennis at Chequers once, and that no phone calls from Obama were recorded that day. However, this doesn’t quite square with Cameron’s sworn evidence before Lord Chief Justice Leveson (PDF), where he maintained, “I do not have a detailed record of how I spent this time, where I met individuals at Chequers or in Downing Street.” Charlie Brooks does not appear on the official guest list released to the press.
But whatever the real story, Cameron will not want be reminded of his relationship to Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, especially after revelations earlier this year of a slew of social engagements and “country suppers” with his Oxfordshire neighbors—even during the beginnings of the hacking scandal and New Corp.’s contentious $16-billion-dollar bid to take over Britain’s most profitable broadcaster, BSkyB.
The revelation that Cameron would go out riding on a retired police horse loaned to Mrs. Brooks, or of the multiple text messages between them in which she averred “Yes we Cam!” and he regularly signed off “LOL” (erroneously thinking it stood for “lots of love”) caused much hilarity when they emerged in the Leveson Inquiry. More seriously for Cameron, they cemented the image of what one Tory MP called “arrogant posh boys.” The prime minister’s approval ratings have fallen ever since.
The nightmare will not end quickly. There have now been over 50 arrests in police bribery and phone- and email-hacking allegations that have beset Murdoch’s U.K. publishing subsidiary, News International. On Wednesday, the first dozen or so defendants appeared in court—including both Brookses (Charlie faces charges of helping to cover up the phone hacking scandal) and Cameron’s former press guru, Andy Coulson.
The historic court one of the Old Bailey was not only filled with press and public on Wednesday, but there were so many defendants they couldn’t fit in the dock: two had to answer charges from the body of the court. Eighteen bewigged barristers—some of the finest criminal lawyers in the country—were also in attendance. Only two defendants, the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and former managing editor Stuart Kuttner could not make the hearing.
Brooks sat at the back of the dock in a black dress, while Coulson, her successor as editor of the now shuttered News of the World, sat with other former senior editors and reporters of the Sunday tabloid: former assistant editors Ian Edmondson and James Weatherup, and the former chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck.
Like Brooks, Coulson faces multiple hacking charges, as well as allegations of perjury. In court, both answered only to confirm their names to the judge. The defendants were bailed with strict conditions on their movements and contacts. Because it is such a complicated case, involving multiple defendants often facing several charges, prosecuting counsel Andrew Edis announced that the trial probably would not begin before September next year.
The news of a year’s delay must have sent a chill through Fleet Street, since many of its former senior reporters and executives are still under scrutiny, and with the police investigations ongoing, there is still the possibility of more arrests to come. But for David Cameron, the delay is probably more excruciating.
It’s a double bind for the prime minister. Brooks was a close friend, Coulson a senior political adviser. The scheduled date of the trial could mean that evidence will be heard in the crucial run-up to the next general election in 2015 and provide more reminders of the cozy intimacy between politicians and press—which even Cameron admits, “got too close.”