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British Press Inquiry Sheds Light On P.M.'s Social Circle


The British have been holding a public inquiry into press ethics for the last few months. The government is responding to the outcry over the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World. The inquiry's investing the way newspapers, the police and politicians may feed off each other and that means shining a light into the secluded world, in particular, of the prime minister's social set. NPR's Philip Reeves has been watching the questioning.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Rebecca Brooks is on the stand. She ran Murdoch's powerful British newspapers until the scandal forced her to resigns. Roberts Jay, counsel to the inquiry, is on a quest. He wants to know if there was anything corrupt in the relationship between Murdoch's empire and the politicians who govern Britain. Jay begins exploring Brooks' friendship with Prime Minister David Cameron.


REEVES: Cameron and Brooks are members of what's become known in Britain as the Chipping Norton Set.

RACHEL JOHNSON: The Chipping Norton Set is the name that's been given to a group of people who are sort of centered around the Conservative Party and news international employees, who've all got second homes in or around Chipping Norton. I wouldn't say in Chipping Norton because it's a town and they like their farms and they like their livestock and they like their horses and their gardens.

REEVES: That's author and journalist Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady magazine. Chipping Norton is about a 75 miles northwest of London. It's in Oxfordshire.

JOHNSON: Where you have these honey-stoned villages and incredibly expensive farm shops and rolling countryside over which they all ride to hounds together, and this is where the deals are done, and the contacts are made and the friendships are forged.

REEVES: At the center of this set are David Cameron and his wife Samantha. Around them revolves a group that includes Rebekah Brooks, her husband, Charlie, a racehorse trainer, Rupert Murdoch's second daughter, Elisabeth and her husband, Matthew Freud, a PR executive. Perhaps the group's most globally famous member is this man...

JEREMY CLARKSON: The trouble is, none of these cars are really very small. They are in fact massive.

REEVES: Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the TV motoring show, "Top Gear."

The term Chipping Norton Set was first to coined by Stephen Glover, a political columnist with "The Daily Mail," Glover says its members should not be confused with the traditional English aristocracy.

STEPHEN GLOVER: Absolutely not. And they're not at all the British aristocracy. Rebekah Brooks is, you know, just an ordinary, an ordinary girl, as it were. And I think Cameron is just a member of the privileged upper middle classes. And Jeremy Clarkson is not an aristocrat.

REEVES: Glover says the Chipping Norton Set behave pretty much like any other very wealthy people.

GLOVER: They have dinner parties, they have drinks parties, they have drinks in each others houses. There's also a sort of country element, in as much Rebekah Brooks is a keen rider, and so is David Cameron, and there's recently been quite a lot of hilarious publicity about how David Cameron rode a horse that which been lent to Rebekah Brooks by the Metropolitan Police in London; they no longer needed it.

REEVES: Wait a minute, the prime minister riding a horse lent by the cops to a woman from tacky world of Murdoch's tabloids? Isn't this all a bit bizarre? But England is rather bizarre and, says Rachel Johnson, very cliquey.

JOHNSON: I am afraid I don't live in meritocracy or a democracy, I live in a mate-ocracy where it completely depends on who you know, who is godfather to your child, where you went to school, and where you hunt.

REEVES: The Camerons and the Brookses won't be hunting together for a while. Glover says the hiatus over the phone-hacking scandal has changed the Chipping Norton Set.

GLOVER: No, it'll never been the same again. I mean, I don't think.


GLOVER: I mean, the center of the central relationship in the Chipping Norton set was between Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron, and that is broken for ever.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.


SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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