Thanks to ‘horse-gate,' it is clear how close British Prime Minister David Cameron was to the Murdoch media.
Forget those Michelin-star lunches and swanky weekend champagne parties with the News of the World journalists. Bizarrely a horse called Raisa has emerged as an unlikely symbol of British coppers' cosy relationship with the Rupert Murdoch press, currently the subject of a judicial inquiry as part of a broader investigation into allegations of Scotland Yard's role in hushing up the NoW phone-hacking scandal.
Short of making it to the You-tube, “horse-gate” has become one of the most talked about stories in the British media over the past week and spawned a competition among headline writers for the cleverest horse-pun — “horse-power,” “horse-trading,” “looking a gift horse in the mouth,” “straight from the horse's mouth,” “taken for a ride.” Anything remotely to do with horses will do, thank you.
‘Not a big deal'
The story goes back to the days before the assorted scandals plunged the Murdoch empire into its current state of terminal decline. The year was 2008 when Mr. Murdoch's influence on Britain's public life was at its height and the ruling elite bent over backwards to please the old man, often by pleasing his proxies at Wapping, the architectural eyesore that houses his U.K. headquarters. Police were not to be left behind in this race.
So, when over a convivial lunch with the then Scotland Yard chief Sir Ian Blair, Rebekah Brooks — at the time Editor of The Sun and on her way up to becoming chief executive of his British subsidiary, News International (NI) — happened to mention her desire for a horse Sir Ian promptly offered her one from the police stable. Within hours, Raisa was hers.
Sir Ian says it was “not a big deal” as police routinely loaned retired horses to people who had facilities to care for them but critics see it as another example of how desperate the police were to curry favour with the Murdoch crowd.
Thanks to Raisa (God, bless her) we also now know how close Prime Minister David Cameron was to the Murdoch media until, in the wake of the hacking scandal, he started to distance himself. After a great deal of stonewalling, Mr. Cameron has been forced to admit that he was on close enough terms with Ms Brooks and her husband Charlie, an Etonian contemporary, to go riding with them — and had, indeed, ridden Raisa on occasions.
In a carefully-worded statement, Mr. Cameron said: “I have not been riding with him (Charlie Brooks) since the election (in 2010). Before the election, yes, I did go riding with him. He has a number of horses and, yes, one of them was this former police Raisa, which I did ride.”
The “horse-gate,” though revealing in its own way, pales into a sideshow when set against other — more damaging — revelations and developments such as the arrest of some 13 senior former and current Sun journalists for allegedly bribing police and other public officials for stories. They account for virtually the entire Sun top brass including its deputy editor, picture editor, chief reporter, chief foreign correspondent and defence editor. So far, 30 News International journalists have been arrested over allegations of hacking and bribery.
An ongoing inquiry, chaired by a senior judge Brian Henry Leveson, has been told by the detective leading the hacking/bribery investigation that The Sun had a “culture of illegal payments” to public officials. The payments were “frequent, regular, and on occasion significant sums of money were involved,” Sue Akers, Scotland Yard's Deputy Assistant Commissioner, told the Leveson inquiry.
She said the money was paid for pure “salacious gossip” rather than stories that could be regarded as in public interest. The inquiry also heard how senior police officers wined and dined with Murdoch journalists at some of London's swankiest restaurants.
Meet John Yates, a former Assistant Commissioner of Police who was forced to resign last year after being heavily criticised for his cursory investigation into the hacking allegations. His testimony to the Leveson inquiry via a telelink from Bahrain where he trains their police force often read like a Time Out guide to London's most exclusive eating joints such as The Ivy. These were the sort of places where he routinely had lunches and dinners with the Murdoch people. At one point in his testimony when he named a particular restaurant, the counsel for the inquiry remarked: “That must be very expensive Mr. Yates. At least £100 a head.”
To which Mr. Yates drily responded: “All restaurants in London are expensive.”
Mr. Murdoch had hoped to draw a line under the past with a tub-thumping launch of a “family-friendly” Sunday edition of The Sun but the continuing drip-drip of damaging headlines appear to have put paid to that. The departure, meanwhile, of his son and heir-apparent James Murdoch from News International amid questions over his role in an attempted cover-up of the hacking scandal has revived speculation that he may sell up his British titles to concentrate on the more profitable bits of his global empire.
By the way, if you are wondering what happened to Raisa, well, Ms Brooks rode it for two years but when it became too old and frail to be of any use she returned it to the police. The horse was “subsequently re-housed with a police officer in 2010, and later died of natural causes,” according to the police.