The Media Today

David Cameron is back. Will noughties spin come back with him? 

November 14, 2023
David Cameron, Britain's then prime minister, attends the launch of the "Brighter Future In" campaign bus at Exeter University in Devon during the Brexit referendum in 2016. The author of this article is third from the left, in a white T-shirt. Photo: Dan Kitwood/PA Wire URN:26008438

Yesterday morning, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, began restaffing his government—a process that the British political world calls a “reshuffle.” Journalists fixed their eyes on the entrance to Downing Street, where prospective ministers have to walk en route to being hired. Early in the process, two journalists on Sky News chatted over footage of a Land Rover pulling up outside, then paused in apparent shock as a man climbed out of the back seat. “David Cameron?!” they squealed, in perfect unison. Over on the BBC, Henry Zeffman, a reporter who was stationed in Downing Street, looked like he’d seen a ghost. “I’m a bit tired, but I don’t think I’ve had a funny turn,” Zeffman said. “I think—I don’t know, but I think—that means he’s going to be the new foreign secretary.”

Shortly afterward, Zeffman’s hunch was confirmed: Cameron, who served as Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, was officially in as foreign minister, one of the top four posts in the British government. Reporters’ shock at his return—word of which, apparently, flew under the radar of Britain’s gossip-hungry political press—was no confected drama; Cameron stepped down as a lawmaker shortly after leaving the prime minister’s office, and his frontline political career was widely assumed to be over. (Sunak has appointed Cameron to the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the legislature, so that he might enter the cabinet.) Reporters and pundits were nonetheless quick to posit reasons for his comeback, both international and domestic. He’s loaded with contacts on the world stage at a time of high tension. And—with the governing Conservative Party having tacked ever further to the populist right since Cameron’s exit—his return looks like a concession to grown-up pragmatism. (Well, the perception of it.)

Cameron, while not without his controversies, is not a modern media figure in the mold of Boris Johnson, another former prime minister, who has carved out a dual role as media subject and practitioner (and recently leveraged it to stoke comeback speculation). Cameron has said little since his ignominious departure in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, beyond occasional interventions and a memoir that hardly pulled up trees. Though he has long been entangled with the same media forces that Johnson exploited—most notably the Murdoch clan—and is by no means above the basest cynicism, he in many ways represents a bygone, identifiably noughties era of press-politician relations, at least on the right: one of naive techno-optimism, cuddly photo ops, and artificial intimacy. As he makes an unlikely comeback of his own, examining these roots helps illustrate how the British government sees the relationship that it seems to place above all others—that with the press—and how it has changed. 

Cameron cut his teeth working as a PR man for a British TV company; indeed, prior to taking office as prime minister, it was the only job he ever held outside of politics. As one journalist who interacted with Cameron during this period recalled to The Guardian in 2010, Cameron “was working for a complete raging nutter”—a reference to the businessman Michael Green—and as such had a combative relationship with reporters. That was, when they could reach him: Janine Gibson, The Guardian’s media correspondent during the same period, recalled for the same 2010 story that Cameron once took her call but then pretended to be a cleaner. (“I can’t prove it was him,” Gibson said, “but it certainly sounded an awful lot like him.”)

Cameron became a lawmaker in the early 2000s and swiftly climbed the ranks to become leader of the Conservative Party, which was then in opposition. He retained a PR-driven approach, albeit one with fuzzier edges than his corporate incarnation; in many ways, he aped the slick, perpetually image-conscious style of Tony Blair, the then–Labour Party prime minister. Cameron himself was never a convincing digital native—he once made a memorable (and X-rated) remark about his aversion to posting “twits”; years later, he reportedly asked a group of journalists, “What is The BuzzFeed?”—and yet his political operation harnessed modes of online communication and content creation that, while quaint in retrospect, were forward-thinking at the time, at least for a party with a reputation for fustiness. He appeared in a series of YouTube videos (titled “WebCameron”) that showed him engaged in routine activities like washing up. “Watch out BBC, ITV, Channel 4,” he said in one video. “We’re the new competition.” (A key architect of this strategy was Steve Hilton, a self-styled political modernizer who went on, in a later life, to host a show on Fox News.)

In addition to circumventing the traditional media, Cameron tried to cultivate it, partially through photo ops and stunts—a famous one showed him “hugging a husky” to communicate his supposed green credentials; in the same vein, he started cycling to work, only for the press to discover that a car followed behind carrying his papers (he said this was never a secret)—but also more personally. Cameron courted newspaper publishers and editors and was particularly close to those associated with Murdoch, who reportedly found Cameron slick but nonetheless backed him; The Sun, a Murdoch tabloid of mythic influence (in every sense of that term), switched allegiance from Labour to the Conservatives, starting in 2009. Cameron shared a social set with Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and with Rebekah Brooks, a lynchpin of his British empire. (It was later revealed that Cameron signed texts to Brooks “LOL,” thinking this stood for “lots of love.”) And he tapped Andy Coulson, a former Murdoch editor, as his spin doctor.

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In 2010, Cameron entered Downing Street at the head of a coalition government (a rarity in Britain). Around the same time, a scandal involving alleged phone hacking and other deceptive reporting practices at Murdoch’s titles was slowly gaining steam. In January 2011, Coulson, who had entered government with Cameron, resigned over reports of his complicity in the conduct. Months later, the affair blew up after The Guardian reported that the News of the World, the paper Coulson once led, hacked the voicemail of a murdered child, among other claims. The paper shut down; years later, Coulson was jailed. Cameron established a judge-led inquiry to investigate press ethics and himself testified under oath. He conceded that the relationship between politicians and the press was unhealthily incestuous, but denied that he had offered Murdoch any quid pro quo in exchange for his backing. 

If Cameron’s coziness with the Murdoch empire proved a political liability for him, he lived and died by conservative media in other ways. In 2015, he won a surprisingly clear election victory over Ed Miliband, the then–Labour leader, whom right-wing papers demonized—eagerly abetted by some cynical campaigning from Cameron’s team—as both a bumbling goofball and a dangerous radical. But these same papers could be fickle in their coverage of Cameron. (After the 2015 election, the Mail published a thinly sourced book excerpt alleging that he did unspeakable things to a dead pig while at university.) And even his clear 2015 victory turned out to be a curse: now shorn of moderate coalition partners, he called a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which he had pledged, in part, as a sop to hard-liners in his party. 

Cameron fought for Britain to stay in the EU, and the campaign he helped lead was in his own image: cautiously crafted and underpinned by tight message discipline and conventional media interventions. I should know because I worked for it before becoming a journalist, as an organizer in the southwest of England, where I’m from. I met Cameron at one event at a local university, where we chatted awkwardly in front of a patriotically colored bus as cameras clicked behind us. In the end, ours was no match for the rival Brexit campaign, which surfed on a wave of populist grievance politics and built on a bedrock of anti-European sentiment reinforced by decades of hostile coverage in many of the same papers that went on to back Cameron. 

The day after the referendum, Cameron resigned, ushering in an era of angry political chaos under first Theresa May and then Johnson, who, as a right-wing journalist, had himself written many of the stories that stoked the narratives underpinning Brexit. Johnson was a longtime rival of Cameron (in true British fashion, they attended the same elite school) and, after taking office, was more scorched-earth in his dealings with the press. Cameron, for his part, retreated into the shadows, popping up only occasionally to gripe about the things Johnson seemed to be able to get away with, or to warn of the threat that Donald Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric posed to investigative journalism

In 2021, Cameron became a subject of the latter—the Financial Times and other outlets reported on his aggressive lobbying work on behalf of Greensill Capital, a controversial financial firm, including on a camping trip with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (that took place after MBS had been implicated in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi). Cameron initially stonewalled queries—when the Financial Times reached him, he advised that the paper call his office; when told his office wasn’t answering questions, he hung up. He eventually denied breaking any rules and said that he raised human rights in Saudi Arabia, but he conceded some mistakes. 

Now that Cameron is back in government, that controversy is again hanging over him—Lex Greensill, whose eponymous firm collapsed, still faces fraud allegations in Switzerland—while his prime-ministerial record has resurfaced for media scrutiny, too, not least his oversight of a swingeing program of cuts to social spending. More broadly, the stench of a dying government surrounds his appointment. Something similar might be said of Cameron’s theory of the press, even if his new boss, Sunak, may hope to channel it to appeal to more moderate Conservative constituencies. Some commentators are pleased to see him back. (“Daddy’s home,” one remarked.) But by and large, furious red meat is now the order of the day across much of the British right and its media. The relative polish of Cameron and his ilk long ago rubbed off. 

Yesterday afternoon, Cameron gave his first broadcast interview since his return, to Zeffman’s BBC colleague Chris Mason. At one point, Mason asked Cameron about the lingering Greensill controversy. Cameron smoothly dodged, but Mason pressed him, and this time, Cameron couldn’t escape. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “that is all dealt with and in the past.”

Other notable stories:

  • The government of Israel moved to shutter the operations inside the country of Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese channel, on the grounds that it is pro-Hezbollah and a threat to national security; officials ordered its online presence blocked and its equipment seized. The decision was authorized under recent emergency regulations allowing Israeli officials to shut down foreign media companies under certain conditions; as I wrote recently, the rules initially seemed aimed at curbing Al Jazeera, but the Times of Israel now reports that that push has been complicated by the involvement of Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, in hostage negotiations with Hamas. Meanwhile, eleven major Western news organizations wrote to Israel and Egypt asking for access to Gaza, which has mostly been off limits to foreign reporters since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.
  • Yesterday—following months of reporting, by ProPublica and other outlets, on undisclosed gifts from wealthy donors to its justices—the Supreme Court published a code of ethics, the first time it has ever taken such a step. The justices claimed that the document mostly codifies existing rules, and outside critics noted that it appears to lack any enforcement mechanisms; speaking on MSNBC, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick described the code as “an ethics aspiration.” But Lithwick and others also noted that the code represents an unusual response from the court to public demands about its conduct. The retired judge J. Michael Luttig said that the code is of “historic significance.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.