UK Politics

Phone-hacking: The view from Lagos

Prime Minister David Cameron delivering a speech on growth and trade to delegates at the The Pan African University Business School in Lagos, Nigeria
Image caption Prime Minister David Cameron is currently on a short visit to Africa

Hyperbole. Exaggeration. Total lack of perspective.

These are just some of the views of the hacking crisis expressed by those close to David Cameron as he tours Africa.

They say they accept totally that it is a massive story with important questions and consequences for the police, the media and politics.

But they point to the opinion polls that show a public largely unmoved by the scandal, a sense that - if anything - it has merely added to a prevailing mood of "a plague on all your houses".

They point to the eurozone crisis, the conflict in Libya, and of course the growing humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa and ask for the hacking crisis to be put in that context.

But dig deeper and you get to the nub of their argument and it is this: people should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

They believe the media has covered this story by assuming that many of the protagonists are guilty of what they have been accused. And by this they mean Andy Coulson.

They reject Labour's charge that Mr Cameron has been guilty of an error of judgement by employing Mr Coulson. That, they imply, could be decided only if any court ever found him guilty of something.

So Mr Cameron's team invite us to take the long view.

They remind us of Mrs Thatcher's crisis over Westland helicopters, Tony Blair's row over Bernie Ecclestone and party funding, and above all, the cash for honours allegations that dogged the last Labour government.

Crises all that gripped Westminster at the time but arguably had less impact in the long run.

So that then is their argument. I offer, in return, some thoughts:

1. For all the glories of the iPad and other modern technologies that allow travelling officials to stay in touch, it is always difficult to judge the ebb and flow of a crisis back home. Just as it is possible for Westminster to keep its nose firmly fixed on its navel. Both can lead to bad decisions by governments.

2. Unlike many crises that beset previous administrations, the phone hacking story has what in my previous newspaper life I would have called "legs". There are inquiries and investigations that will drag on and produce new revelations. There are possibly going to be some trials. In other words, this ain't over yet and so it has the potential to have greater lasting impact.

3. Optimism is a great asset in politics, as it is in life. But complacency is a dangerous thing. I am always cautious when urged by key players in a conflict to get a bit of perspective. They may or may not be right - and often they are - but I am always struck that it is an argument which tends to be deployed when no better one can be found.