In a work of fiction by Robert Harris or John le Carre, I forget which, a global media corporation run by the mysterious, dictatorial head of a family dynasty that has been favourably compared to the Mafia inserts two of its top people into the very heart of the British Establishment: the Press Office at 10 Downing Street, hub of the Government’s information machine; and the Prime Minister’s own domestic kitchen. Showing the egalitarian approach to the common people for which Old Etonians are famously trained, the PM describes them magnanimously as his ‘friends’. Both agents are former scandal sheet editors, cunning and ruthless tacticians. Unbeknown apparently to the Prime Minister’s staff, one is still being paid by the corporation while in his employment; the other has recently been promoted as its senior UK executive and is often seen on the arm of the Godfather himself (only it is another former British Prime Minister who is in fact The Godfather, to the magnate’s grandson!).
The corporation has been seeking to consolidate a virtual monopoly of key parts of the UK media and declares privately that it would not welcome a referral of its bid to the Monopolies Commission, as has been recommended by the media watchdog, Off-on. The PM promptly removes his able Business minister who (in a sting operation mysteriously mounted by a newspaper supposedly belonging to a rival media group) has inadvertently revealed a bias against the corporation’s bid and instead appoints another minister to front the Government’s response who, it later transpires, has been lobbying on behalf of it.
The new minister inevitably rules out a referral, and states that he can see no problem with 40 per cent of the UK’s news media being owned by an American citizen who is a leading figure in a secretive rightwing Atlanticist, anti-European pressure group of billionaire businessmen; following which it emerges that, while investigating and making an ‘impartial’ decision on whether or not to let the bid go forward, his office has been in daily contact with the corporation and has on occasion even commiserated with Giacomo, its CEO and Chairman in waiting, the eldest son of the Capo, over decisions that have gone against it. The minister denies that there has been any undue influence.
Separately, following a dogged newspaper investigation, the Metropolitan police grudgingly agrees to investigate copious evidence pointing to past lawbreaking by the corporation, that senior officers have apparently sat on for three years. The lawbreaking includes illegal surveillance and possible corrupt payments to police officers. The senior officer who has staunchly defended the decision to ignore the evidence on the grounds that ‘there is no new evidence’ resigns, and is duly exonerated by an internal enquiry. Journalists and junior police officers are arrested and questioned.
An urbane but forensically minded judge has been publicly appointed by the Prime Minister to look into these matters in a vaguely general sort of way and instead begins doggedly to tease out the truth. One of the PM’s two ‘friends’ is subsequently charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice. The other admits to having had access to classified documents and meetings at 10, Downing Street for which he did not have security clearance. He soon faces charges of perjury over an unrelated case. Meanwhile, the ageing dynast and his chosen successor, Giacomo, the inexperienced and overprotected son, who is now feeling the chill wind of publicity, have given brazenly evasive but ineffective testimonies as to what they knew, or did not know, or had forgotten, and when, about what, if anything. Several ‘brave’ MPs accuse them of lying to Parliament and duck back beneath the parapet. Will they get away with it?
Meanwhile details start to emerge from a former Prime Minister of the ‘friendship’ between his wife and the chief UK executive of the corporation, pre-dating the ‘friendship’ between her and the incumbent Prime Minister’s wife, who has been given a present of a retired police horse. . . the whole horse, this time, not just its head. It seems we are all friends now.
Eventually it emerges that the British government has been penetrated at the highest level and compromised in the private lives of its most senior figures by agents of a foreign-owned, expansionist global corporation bent on acquiring global power through its manipulation of the British state. Misjudgements and worse have resulted. In another of a series of singularly ill-judged statements, the PM says he ‘does not regret’ any of it. Increasingly, he comes to be seen as a tragi-comic figure, powerless at home, out of his depth in international affairs, who takes refuge in travelling the world, lecturing other governments on what ‘Britain expects’.
It is the last days of the Macmillan government. If such a scandal had happened to affect the Defence establishment rather than merely the Department for Media and Sport, we would by now be hearing the word ‘treason’. As created by our writer of suspenseful thriller fiction, the whole sordid episode has yet to come out in the wash, but already by Chapter 15 shows a reckless, almost criminal lack of judgement on the part of senior politicians seeking out of craven self-interest to curry favour with a powerful magnate while paying only lip-service to the law. It could only happen in a novel.
And what is Parliament doing about it? Sitting on its hands, hoping, one would imagine, for its third reprieve from a major scandal in a row, promised by the annual summer recess and – for one year only – the London Olympic Games…. It’s an unlikely plot-twist, I’ll admit. Why, they may even be mounting missiles on the rooftops of Wapping!
Now read on.