Hacking trial will keep PM’s judgment in spotlight


The leadership of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be rocked by the phone hacking scandal right into next year now that his friend Rebekah Brooks and his former media adviser Andy Coulson have been charged and face trial.
The pair face possible jail terms on charges they conspired to hack the phones of more than 600 people, and their trials next year may reveal new emails or evidence relating to dealings with Mr Cameron, who is up for election in 2015.
Mr Cameron has faced serious questions about his judgment in hiring Mr Coulson, who was appointed to Downing Street after resigning from News of the World over phone hacking.
Mr Cameron has also been criticised for his friendship with Mrs Brooks, a former chief executive of News International.
A lecturer in politics and media at Nottingham Trent University, Matthew Ashton, told the Herald last night: “The criminal charges make things potentially very difficult for Cameron. Obviously they are innocent until proven guilty but, in terms of public perception and media perception, this is going to hang over them and over him for up to the next two years.
“It calls into question again his judgment in being such close personal friends of Brooks and employing Coulson. There will be more questions asked about Coulson’s vetting.”
Mr Coulson, who like Mrs Brooks strongly denies all charges, has said he knew nothing of phone hacking but resigned because the practice took place on his watch.
Dr Ashton said the charges will force Mr Cameron to distance himself further from them.
“I’m sure if they could be erased from official photos without anyone noticing they would be,” he said. It would further strain Mr Cameron’s relationship with the Murdoch empire before an election, he said.
After Rupert Murdoch and his son James appeared before a committee of MPs inquiring into the phone-hacking allegations, coverage in The Times and The Sun gave Mr Cameron “a rougher ride”, Dr Ashton said.
Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson are among eight people formerly employed by News of the World who are charged with 19 counts of conspiracy over phone hacking. Their targets allegedly included Labour cabinet ministers and celebrities.
Mr Coulson faces five counts of conspiring to unlawfully intercept communications, including the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. Mrs Brooks faces three similar counts.
Dr Ashton said the Prime Minister’s links with News International, revealed in the Leveson inquiry into the media, have also reinforced a view the Conservative Party looks after “its friends” rather than the people.
The Barclays banking scandal and the phone-hacking revelations have intertwined to create “a feeling that in what is supposed to be a meritocracy, the very top people in the country are out only for themselves and their friends and the fact that in the Leveson inquiry text messages between Mr Cameron and Mrs Brooks were revealed … did help create that mood about an old boys’ network in smoke-filled rooms”.First published in The Age.

Brits return to Blitz mentality

The Olympics security contractor had no hope of meeting the requirement, writes Karen Kissane in London.

For those trying to organise security for the London Olympics, the blame games are already up and running.
Gloomier Londoners already viewed the Games as an ordeal to be endured with the kind of British stoicism displayed during the Blitz. The chaos around security, however, is of an entirely different order. It opens the way to catastrophe.
In the past 10 days, Britain and the world have learnt that the Games has a shortfall of 3500 security guards as well as problems notifying existing guards when and where they are to report for work. Only 30 of an expected 300 officers turned up to guard cyclists. Only 10 of 58 arrived to guard footballers; 20 of 58 were at the main Olympic hotel; and none turned up for an induction day at Coventry Stadium (70 expected).
“It’s a lottery as to how many staff are going to turn up,” Clive Chamberlain, chairman of Dorset Police Federation, told The Guardian. “It’s a fiasco, an absolute debacle.”
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, at the centre of a political firestorm over the mess, claims the government knew nothing of the crisis until told last week by G4S, the company hired to provide Games security. She has called in 3500 emergency personnel, including sailors, airmen and police, to fill the shortfall.
Another 2000 might be needed, but the government is fending off that embarrassment, despite warnings from defence chiefs that notice is required if troops are wanted at the opening ceremony next Friday. This would bring the total military involved in the Games, planned and unplanned, to 19,000.
GS4’s chief executive, Nick Buckles, copped a grilling by MPs this week in which he admitted he couldn’t guarantee he could supply even the 7000 guards now required at his tattered end of the bargain. He said he could not predict the scale of “no-shows” until recruits failed to respond to an email. He also could not promise that all the guards would speak fluent English: “I don’t know what fluent English is.”
Asked by an MP whether the debacle was a “humiliating shambles”, Buckles admitted, “I would have to agree with you.”
G4S has had £400 million ($600 million) wiped off its market value and is predicting it will make a £50 million loss on the Games contract. But it is insisting on its £57 million “management fee”.
How did it come to this?
It appears computer glitches at G4S sent recruits to the wrong venues or supplied them with incorrect schedules.
There also seems to be a larger than expected number of casual employees who have lost interest or found another job.
However, May said the company had been assuring ministers it would “overshoot” the recruitment targets in its £284 million contract. This is at odds with an internal Home Office memo, revealed this week by The Sunday Times, that warned in April, “We will very soon start to see big shortfalls against planned numbers.”
Part of the problem is governmental dithering.
Last December, fully six years after London won the Games, the government had a last-minute rush of blood to the head over security issues and dramatically amped up the brief to G4S from 2000 guards (in a contract signed in December 2010) to 13,700 guards.
The tardiness was despite the fact that London was hit by the 7/7 suicide bomb attacks the day after winning the race for the Olympics in 2005. Defence chiefs had offered to provide Games security but the government decided outsourcing to a private company would be better.
Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, said: “It is outrageous. [The organisers] knew in 2005 that security was going to be a major challenge but they left it too late.”
There also have been concerns about the quality of recruits. G4S, which won the contract partly because it had provided security for the Olympics site during construction, has also protected the Wimbledon tennis championships.
A security consultant who went undercover for the company at Wimbledon last year wrote a report listing alarming lapses.
These included some staff lacking even “the most basic security knowledge” needed to guard a significant terrorism target; staff routinely leaving premises unprotected by sleeping on the job; and some recruits being allowed to skip hearing and smell tests designed to check that they were able to notice fires or explosions.
The security consultant who wrote the report, Peter Bleksley, is a former Scotland Yard detective. He warned that the problems could “eventually prove catastrophic for G4S” and some were so serious they could have “fatal consequences” if they were not fixed before the Games.
Buckles claims those concerns were taken on board and dealt with, but one whistleblower has claimed the company has been forced to resort to a “no-fail policy” for recruits in the current crisis.
Despite the torrent of bad publicity, Games chief Sebastian Coe has promised safety will not be compromised: “My responsibility is to make sure that we get a Games that is safe and secure. We will do that, and it is to make sure that our teams, the Home Office and the military sit alongside G4S and mobilise and deploy exactly who we need to.”
It will certainly be one of the most militarised Olympics ever, with missiles poised and jets on hand and the Royal Navy’s largest warship deployed to launch military helicopters.
All that might prove of little use if a terrorist slips through the net at Heathrow Airport. The Observer reported that suspects had been able to enter Britain in the run-up to the Games without being picked up by security checks. A senior border officer said inexperienced recruits were repeatedly failing to refer passengers on a watch list to counter-terrorism officers.

First published in The Age.

Boris, the Tory you have when you’re not having a Tory, leads in London


IN ONE corner is a large, cheery Tory, with mussed blond hair, a wry sense of humour and a notable ability to rise above the bad odour in which his party is currently held. Boris Johnson, 47, is the bookies’ four-to-one favourite to win a second term as London’s mayor in council elections due to be held overnight.
He is expected to vanquish his main opponent, former mayor Ken Livingstone, 67, whose low popular standing is also out of synch with the otherwise rising electoral star of the British Labour Party. This is a contest in which personality has prevailed over party politics.
A YouGov poll published on Monday gave Mr Johnson a four-point lead, even though those surveyed believed Mr Livingstone had achieved more in office (39 per cent to 32 per cent) and was more in touch with the concerns of ordinary people (37 per cent to 14 per cent).
But they liked Boris more; 35 per cent wanted to go out for a drink with him (only 16 per cent for Livingstone) and they also found him more charismatic (51 per cent to 14 per cent) and honest (22 per cent versus 14 per cent).
The campaign has been heated. As a bitter brawl about his non-mayoral income dragged on (Mr Johnson earns £250,000 a year for a weekly column with the Daily Telegraph), Mr Johnson at one point called Mr Livingstone “a f—ing liar”.
At another point, he said “f—ing bollocks” to a BBC camera. This was when he was challenged by a journalist over allegations he had been in talks with James Murdoch while News International was being investigated by police. The result: an instant boost in the polls. It added to his appeal as the Eton/Oxford posh-boy who is seen as being like ordinary Britons.
People buttonhole him on the street. Drivers wind down windows and shout “Go Boris!” — although the occasional driver begs to differ, with “Tory bastard!”
Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that Mr Johnson is seen as the non-Tory Tory: “You don’t have to be Conservative to vote for Boris; you can dislike all the political parties but you can vote for Boris because he has a big heart and he is doing the right thing for London.”
He is also doing the right thing for Boris. Mr Johnson, who has a high public profile because of his personal charm and the visibility of some of his initiatives, is thought to have ambitions for national political leadership.
Some have even touted him as a potential Conservative prime minister, and there is speculation that he might take advantage of any byelections that present themselves — though probably not until he has presided over the London Olympics.
His election policies this time round include promises to cut council tax, put 2000 more police on the beat and help create 200,000 jobs.
Mr Livingstone, who was mayor between 2000 and 2008, has pledged to help “ordinary Londoners” struggling with the cost of living.
Polls are taking place in 180 councils across England, Scotland and Wales.

First published in The Age.

Cameron stares down MP revolt on EU poll

LONDON: The Prime Minister, David Cameron, returning from an EU summit where he had a furious row with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was facing a backbench revolt last night from Conservatives who want a referendum on pulling out of the European Union.
As tempers frayed on Sunday among several European leaders struggling to agree on how to fix the deepening euro zone crisis, Mr Cameron fought for the right to have a say in the final plan to be hammered out in Brussels on Wednesday.
Initially only the 17 countries that use the single currency were to be at the midweek emergency meeting over debt but Mr Cameron insisted the union’s other members be allowed to have a say.
Mr Sarkozy retorted: “You have lost a good opportunity to shut up … We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”
Mr Cameron has cancelled a trip to Japan and New Zealand to attend tomorrow’s summit.
It was agreed that all 27 EU countries would debate the crucial rescue measures – to recapitalise banks, boost the bail-out fund and write down Greek debt – but only the 17 euro countries will vote on them.
At Mr Cameron’s insistence, leaders inserted into the final communique a promise to safeguard a level playing field for non-euro nations.
Europe’s troubles have bolstered the cause of Britain’s euro-sceptics, who fear the cost of future bailouts and who want to wrestle certain regulatory powers back from Brussels.
Mr Cameron has suggested that if treaty changes were required for a euro rescue plan Britain might agree to back them if it got some of its powers back.
But Mr Cameron has said it is not the time for a referendum and has given his MPs a “three-whip” order, the strongest instruction possible, to vote against the proposal on pain of losing their government positions. “I don’t think this is the right time to legislate for an in/out referendum,” Mr Cameron said. “This is the right time to sort out the euro zone’s problems, defend your national interest and look to the opportunities there may be in the future to repatriate powers back to Britain. Obviously the idea of some limited treaty change in the future might give us that opportunity.”
The vote overnight is expected to be the largest revolt he has faced as a leader, with up to 90 defying him, although the proposal is still likely to fail as Labour and the Liberal Democrats are expected to vote against it.
But Mr Cameron’s authority will be undermined if he is challenged by up to a third of his parliamentary party.
Meanwhile Mr Sarkozy and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, attacked Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, demanding he take tougher measures to get Italy’s debt under control. Markets fear Italy could be the next economy to succumb to a sovereign debt crisis.
The weekend summit agreed in principle on a €100 billion ($133.8 billion) plan to recapitalise Europe’s banks, expected to be announced tomorrow.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.