Murdoch’s man, Google’s man: The proxy wars of No.10

As New International's less than comfortable relationship with the government is chipped away, time to flush out Google's grip as well, writes our UK Political Editor Harry Cole.

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Cameron addresses the Google Zeitgeist conference in 2007
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Harry Cole
On 12 July 2011 09:08

The secret is out. The government's close relationship with a controversial global corporation has been exposed for all to see. The Prime Minister, his closest aides, members of the government and backbench MPs, have all bent over backwards to accommodate the whims of corporate executives. Official diaries are littered with meetings, despite warnings of possible conflicts of interests.

No, not Murdoch and his exhausted looking cronies. Not battered News International, but a company with the potential to be far more sinister and powerful: Google.

Last weekend’s Sunday Times reported that a series of Freedom of Information requests:

“…reveal that ministers and senior officials, including David Cameron and George Osborne, the chancellor, have met or had dealings with the American company on about 20 occasions since entering office last year. The disclosures have prompted claims that the company is getting “preferential treatment” from the Prime Minister’s inner circle. They come as the government is poised to back changes to copyright law long sought by Google.”

But hey! It’s Google. Everyone likes Google right?

Well not quite everyone. Leaving aside the growing concerns of civil liberties campaigners who are increasingly vocal about the company’s attitude to data and user privacy, and ignoring the fact they hardly covered themselves in glory with their Chinese dealing, there is one particular public figure with some serious beef with the Californian go-getters.

As the readership levels of Rupert Murdoch’s papers plummeted, his rhetoric against Google stepped up a gear. In December 2009 he said: "To aggregate stories is not fair use. To be impolite, it is theft."

His lieutenants have taken up the cudgels with glee, calling the company variously a "tech tapeworm," a "parasite", and "an internet vampire".”

The image that Google likes to portray is that they are the good guys: down to earth; open; honest. In reality they’re just as much an aggressive, global corporation -- down and dirty with governments and investors -- as any other.

Their on-going battle with News Corporation has been fought hard on both sides, and nowhere more personally than inside the office of David Cameron from 2007 - 2011.

Steve Hilton, Cameron’s chain-smoking, barefoot policy guru is literally in bed with Google. Not only is his deregulating, broadband-loving, big-society mantra in line with Google thinking, his wife is one of its Vice-Presidents.

The Sunday Times claims that Hilton did not think it necessary to declare an interest when he met another senior executive in May, “the day after an official review of copyright and intellectual property was published.”

Not only that, but Hilton spent six months out in California when is wife was promoted in May 2008. He was still working for Cameron, but soaking up the atmosphere and the Silicon Valley contacts. The Obama style vacant nonsense he brought back to sprinkle over Dave might have sounded good in California, but it seems the detail got lost via Skype.

The world now knows the connection between David Cameron and News international through his employment of the former News of the World editor, and now police suspect, Andy Coulson. The no-nonsense Essex man, a chip off the NI block, trained in the dark arts, and with an eye for a story, rescued Cameron from Hilton’s policy-lite, blue-sky, husky-hugging detoxification stage.

This green-trendiness had shaped the two years of Cameron’s party leadership before he appointed Coulson, on Murdoch’s recommendation, in 2007. If Andy Coulson was Murdoch’s boy, Steve Hilton is definitely Google’s.

Though ignored by a media keen to avoid being cut out of the loop, between 2007 and 2010 Coulson and Hilton fought a power struggle that went far above David Cameron’s head.

While Coulson represented the old world -- the big headlines, the strong messages – Hilton was the man of new-age, digital mantras.

In opposition, Coulson understood what attracted much needed working-class votes: tough stances on crime and immigration translated into headlines that reflected people’s day to day concerns rather than the big-ideas put forward by Hilton.

Never expecting it to backfire so spectacularly, Cameron was aware of Coulson’s get-the-story-bruiser reputation, and that’s exactly why he hired him. The idea was floated by News International executives who still held Coulson in high regard for seeming to have done the honourable thing when his hacks were caught pushing it too far on his watch.

Of course, Coulson remained close to News International. I last saw him smiling and laughing in the company of his old colleagues at the NI party at Tory conference 2010: Moët flowing and Rebekah dancing around the room like a giant, ginger Tinkerbell.

His influence in suppressing stories presented to him from the NI papers did not go unnoticed either, especially in the early days of government.

Both men built loyal teams within Downing Street, and Whitehall split semi-evenly between “Steve’s” and “Andy’s” Special Advisers (SpAds).

It’s been a strange week for those once loyal to Coulson. Not many of his boys and girls ever expected to see him fall from so high. From the “second most important job in government” asone loyal spinner put it, to his arrest in a scummy south-London police station, it’s the stuff of novels. But was he helped along his way?

Hilton was both strengthened and weakened by the coalition governemnt. While he lost out on putting “friendlies” into “his sort of department” -- Energy and Climate Change for example -- he was a natural bridge, at the beginning, to the Liberal Democrats. That gave him traction.

Hilton won the early power struggle to have SpAds put into key departments. It left Coulson doing some serious leaning on newly appointed Secretaries of State, and their junior Ministers, to get “his boys” in place -- a number of party staffers and spinners who had been promised jobs by either Coulson or Osborne with the expectation that a government would be formed from a Tory majority.

Many high profile yellows let it be known, loudly, that they were highly sceptical of Coulson taking the government Director of Communications role after the election, Chris Huhne and Lord Ashdown among them.

But both Coulson and Hilton had had their problems.

In January 2010 it was leaked to Channel Four News that the bald-headed guru Steve had been arrested two years earlier at the Conservative Party’s national conference in Birmingham. Cameron delivered a speech there that Hilton had helped to craft containing soundbites such as:

“It's not just the crime or even the antisocial behaviour. It's the angry, harsh culture of incivility that seems to be all around us.

Meanwhile, down the road, Hilton was being detained for calling a station ticket inspector a “wanker”. Priceless!

The story was kept quiet at the time, only to surface two years later, just as it was being weighed up whether it would be right to bring Coulson into the corridors of power. Clues to the story were being put out before Christmas, it just wasn’t nailed down until after the Christmas break. By then Coulson had stopped joking that government couldn’t afford him and had his eye firmly on the rooms behind the door to Number 10.

It was just two months after Steve Hilton had allegedly had a whispering session with Alan Rusbridger over breakfast on the 12th November 2009.  While they chewed muesli in a pop-up yurt somewhere in Shoreditch, Hilton would learn of Coulson’s relationship with a guy found dead with an axe in his head. Don’t believe it? Well it was in the Guardian.

Any explanation of what Cameron knew, and when, in regard to specific allegations about Coulson, has to take the negative arrest briefing into account and work out who, and what, was to blame for it.

Was Hilton threatening to use information against Coulson that resulted in a somewhat News Of the World style retaliatory shot across the bow?

What did Hilton do with that information? As a transparency campaigner and deregulator, you would imagine he shared it immediately to all concerned parties, but as the creator of those “New Labour, New Danger “ demon-Blair eyes, we know Hilton can play dirty too.

Did he tell Coulson his game was up? Why did the Prime Minister dispute reports that he was given specific information? These are the questions that need to be answered by the Prime Minister immediately. A clear narrative of who knew what, and when, must be bullet pointed and broadcast if the government wants this story to go away.

News International’s connections to this government have been flushed out and laid bare for all to see, but the cosy relationships with corporations do not stop there.

Steve Hilton is a man extremely sympathetic and close to an organisation that has a direct interest in the legislation and decisions being made by the government he now steers alone.

Google is the new puppet master. While News International worked to get their own way with a man on the inside, Hilton’s role and the noises he has made for Google need to be scrutinised in just as much detail. If Cameron is serious about rejigging the status quo and ending the cosy relationship between government and the media, then the new media, and the barons of that world must be put in the spotlight too.

Harry Cole in the UK Political Editor for The Commentator. He tweets at @MrHarryCole and is the News Editor for the infamous Guido Fawkes blog.

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