Cameron must show that Sky has its limits
The phone-hacking scandal has revealed contacts between News International and the PM just as its owner bids for BSkyB control, writes Andreas Whittam Smith
Imagine this. The trial of the alleged killer of a young woman is just about to commence. But then we learn that the judge has recently had a friendly dinner with the defendant's parents - even though he knew that he would soon be trying their son. What would we think?
Once we had got over our astonishment, we would without hesitation conclude that a new trial must be arranged and that the wining and dining judge should never be allowed to sit on the bench again.
Now consider the social habits of the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Over Christmas, he and his wife, Samantha, had dinner with a neighbour, Rebekah Brooks, who is the chief executive of News International.
Yet the Government over which Mr Cameron presides is just about to determine whether News International should be allowed to buy the 61% of BSkyB that it does not already own.
In making its decision, the Government is also conducting a sort of trial. News International makes its case; the objectors, of whom there are many, explain why the deal is against the public interest.
Mr Cameron isn't personally conducting the proceedings, but he has sent a signal to those who do. It's not hard to decode. Translated, it reads: "I am the Prime Minister and I have esteem for News International."
Asked about this display of partiality when a quasi-judicial process is under way, the Prime Minister's officials could respond only that Ms Brooks is a constituent. It is difficult to know what to make of this excuse.
Was it all that the staff could bring to mind on the spur of the moment? Or was it two fingers up to the rest of us? At all events, it now turns out that one of Rupert Murdoch's sons, James Murdoch, chairman of New Corporation in Europe and Asia, was also present. He is not a constituent.
In part of his mind, Mr Cameron comprehends that he was wrong to meet executives of News International socially at this time. If you asked him, he would say that, of course, the Prime Minister of the day has to embody the nation's highest standards of probity and fair dealing.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has succumbed to a dangerous condition: moral blindness. This is what has clouded his judgment. His unspoken thought is that, in order to win the next General Election, he must at all costs have the backing of News International's newspapers - including the News of the World.
If the only sensitive matter in which both News International and the Government were concerned was the issue of the acquisition of BSkyB, then perhaps the rest of us could relax after all.
But News International and the Government also collide on the issue of the News of the World's use of private investigators to gain illegal access to the mobile-phone messages of people of interest to the newspaper, including, it is alleged, the actress Sienna Miller.
In 2007, Scotland Yard obtained the conviction of the paper's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, who was jailed for four months. His editor had been Andy Coulson, who resigned two weeks later and then went to work for Mr Cameron. He resigned last week.
Since the Goodman case, the country's largest and most important police force appears to have adopted a policy of masterly inactivity. Never mind that during the investigation of Goodman, it became clear that this was not an isolated incident and that phone-hacking techniques had been used widely.
Never mind that substantial payments were made to three further victims.
Never mind that in April 2010 documents from the Crown Prosecution Service showed that the Scotland Yard inquiry had actually uncovered more than 4,000 names or partial names and nearly 3,000 full or partial telephone numbers from the materials seized from Goodman and the private investigator he employed. Until, on December 10 last year, came this statement from the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC. He said: "There is no admissible evidence upon which the CPS could properly advise the police to bring criminal charges ... [Press reports] are not enough for criminal proceedings, unless those making allegations are prepared to provide the police with admissible evidence to support their assertions. None have been prepared to do so."
Which is strange, indeed. For it must be an everyday occurrence for a large police force to have to deal with witnesses who are frightened of putting their names publicly to what they know.
Phone-hacking is not just a civil wrong, but also a criminal activity under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
So how far does the writ of appeasing News International run? We can say with confidence that - if it runs at all - it starts from 10 Downing Street.
And if it were spelled out, it would simply state: never offend the Murdochs. No one will say this in terms to the Department of Culture that is now handling media competition issues. No one has written it down for Scotland Yard's benefit.
But this odious rule has become part of our unofficial constitution.
That is how bad it is.