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On News International phone-hacking and Cameron

Posted on 24 February 2010 | 9:02am

When The Guardian reported last year on the scale of alleged phone-hacking by the News of the World under then editor Andy Coulson, there was considerable broadcast media coverage, but within 24 hours, it all went fairly quiet. A print media normally keen to fuel any high octane frenzy (recent events concerning the so-called bullying row give a good example of that) decided this one was not really for them.

That may well be because, just as it was always doubtful that the News of the World’s jailed Royal reporter Clive Goodman was alone at the paper in knowing what was going on, so it is doubtful that News International was alone among newspaper groups in hiring private detectives licensed, in the eyes of the press at least, to break the law.

The latest Parliamentary report into the issue confirms suspicions that the phone-hacking practice was more widespread than has been admitted, that knowledge of it went beyond one reporter and one private detective, and that News International have gone to considerable lengths, and cost, to ensure the full story is not exposed to the kind of public gaze they expect for other parts of our national life.

Phrases like ‘collective amnesia … deliberate obfuscation … conceal the truth …’  suggestions that the real scale of the scandal ‘will never be known’ because the silence of key players was ‘effectively bought,’ the view that it is ‘inconceivable’ that Mr Goodman was the  lone ‘rogue reporter’ claimed by News, the criticisms of the lack of rigorous inquiry, not just by News but also by the police and the Press Complaints Commission, combine to make the Culture Committee report about as scathing as they come, with serious questions not just for Rupert Murdoch’s executives, but also for the police and the PCC.

But it is Mr Coulson’s role that takes this more directly to the political and electoral arena. He was editor of the News of the World back then, but is communications director for David Cameron now.

Just as Mr Cameron commands considerable press support, so does Mr Coulson, which is why even though the media has recently been dominated by the issue of bullying, there has been scant reference to his role in the record payout for a bullying case, which also happened on his watch and where he was more directly implicated. It is evidence of Mr Cameron’s confidence that the media is basically on his side that he could intervene in the ‘bullying’ debate without any sense of embarrassment that the man writing his scripts was accused by a tribunal of presiding over a culture of bullying which led one former employee of his to be awarded £800,000. When a woman from a helpline makes vague and changing claims of bullying inside Number 10, Mr Cameron calls for an inquiry. Mr Coulson’s bullying, by contrast, he sees as being acceptable enough for him to be his right-hand man.

But despite the blackout on his role in much of the press, it may be that Mr Coulson may yet become a bigger issue than he and much of the media would like. Because his centrality in Mr Cameron’s bid to become Prime Minister is an issue of the Tory leader’s judgement and modus operandi as much as it is an issue of what Mr Coulson did as a newspaper editor.

The Tories are currently struggling to work out why the polls have narrowed. It strikes me as being fairly obvious. For a considerable proportion of Mr Cameron’s leadership, he has escaped serious scrutiny. He continues in many parts of the media to do so. But the public want more from a would be Prime Minister than to be told that it is time for a change and to be told by newspapers that they should vote for him. So they are looking more closely, and they are not as impressed as the papers by what they see. They are ahead of the press in asking tough questions of Mr Cameron, and in seeing through the thin and ever changing policy platform.

I know that Mr Cameron thinks that the Ashcroft funding issue is not being talked about in the pubs and factories, and so is unlikely to damage his campaign. He will probably think the same about Mr Coulson.

But these are exactly the kind of issues that can explode, a bit like the bullying row did, during a campaign, particularly if, as is the case with the Tories, a Party does not have a clear, consistent and thought through policy agenda to promote. 

When The Guardian last reported on these issues, the Tories were well ahead in the polls, and within a day the sense out there was that nobody much cared. I reckon they’ll care a bit more now. The election is nearer, the economy is improving a little, the polls are closer and the mood inside Tory HQ is not as cheery as it ought to be for a Party that until recently thought it was home and dry.

* An edited version of this appears in today’s Guardian

*** buy The Blair Years online and raise cash for Labour. http://www.alastaircampbell.org/bookshop.php.

  • Alan Gregory

    I’ve always voted Labour, my parents and grandparents have always voted Labour because…well that’s what you did.

    Yet in the run up to this election I’m starting to seriously consider who I will be voting for and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.

    Labour have been guilty of some real howlers, while not necessarily their fault – it certainly happened on their watch and for that they should hold some responsibility.

    Whether through bad luck, incompetance, trust issues or whatever, no party has yet managed to generate a clear lead.

    I hope that i’m wrong but it looks increasingly likely that we will end up with either a hung parliament or such a thin majority that any party would struggle to govern effectively and that would be a tragedy for the country.

  • Chris lancashire

    You are quite right, the likes of Coulson, Damien McBride and other like spinmeisters should be consigned to the dustbin of politics.

  • s chapman

    AC can you just explain how the current Prime Minister of the UK who is said to be have in a bullying manner in a bullying culture can compare to an unelected communications guy(Coulson) for a party not elected and in opposition and according to you will stay in opposition.Your lot are in Govt not in opposition,you are under scrutiny because of your dismal record – you never talk about sterling,lack of credit,jobs and the debt mountain – how did it come about how we reduce it..come on AC

  • olli issakainen

    A man is innocent until proven guilty. But a well-known former editor of a big-selling Sunday newspaper appeared to my great surprise on Sky News (I thought he was banned!) and said that given the scale of the NOTW´s operation, it was highly unlikely that the paper´s editor did not know about it.

  • Hilary Pearse

    If it had been you, I think no doubt the papers would have made sure it was being talked about in the pubs

  • Colin Fletcher

    I bet GB was having one of his anger moments when A Darling came out with his hell being unleashed comments. Mind you, just heard context and it is not as clear cut. Shows how these days top level politicos have to watch every word and comma. Wouldn’t have happened in your day AC!

  • Paula Morse

    The statement by News International confirms their unbelievable arrogance. If the standards they applied to others were applied by newspapers they would all be out of business

  • Jane

    I read this morning that Tom Watson wanted the statement in the report. I do think there is a need to be careful regarding who knew what without evidence. Mr Coulson was named as Editor of the NofTW paper at the relevant time. There is no indication that he himself was a bully?

    We now have a national charity saying that they have been contacted by No 10 staff regarding bullying. I note how a small charity has been crushed by the full might of No10. I disagreed with the information becoming public but to see a bully (I trust Mary Ann Siegfried’s judgement) like a former minister on the news waving documents was offensive. I thought the whole management of the affair demeaning to the office of PM. Yesterday we have had Alastair Darling (a favourite Minister of mine) indicating that No10 staff briefed against him. (I consider this bullying). I was able to assess this myself from my newspapers. There was similar briefing last year when Mr Balls was hoping to become Chancellor. No10 has briefed against a number of eminent labour people, David Miliband, Charles Clarke etc (I respect these people). In my opinion this has become more noticeable since GB took over. I find this very offensive. If it is now being promulgated that Mr Coulson is named as a bully relating to his last job, then GB should also take responsibility for whatever emanates from Downing Street as it is done in his name. After all his aides and press people are doing the same. If you question Mr Cameron’s character, then one could also call into question the character of the PM who surrounds himself with people like Mr Whelan and the departed Mr MacBride.

    I therefore do not accept the premise of your argument. We elect MPs and expect certain standards of behaviour. Press people have no power over us. They may have power over other media but people like me can read Hansard, Government Reports eas well as newspapers and are well able to form our own judgements.

  • Bar Bar of Oz

    “Rawnsley writes that at one meeting Balls was vehement Gordon had been “too weak for too long”. Balls said: “Blair is never going to go. He has to be pushed. You mustn’t be weak. You’ve been weak for too long.” A spokesman for Balls said these ­allegations were untrue. “Mr Balls had always advised Mr Brown to stay out of any ‘move to oust’ Mr Blair,” he said.

    Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, tells Rawnsley the Brownite coup “fitted with a pattern of behaviour over 13 years”. Baroness Morgan, Blair’s director of government relations for four years, says Blair knew Gordon was behind it.

    In the middle of the coup, the former welfare minister Frank Field went to No 10 to plead with Blair not to give way to Brown. “You can’t go yet. You can’t let Mrs Rochester out of the attic,” he said. Rawnsley writes: “Blair roared with laughter.””

    There is something very “off” in these endless accounts of Gordon Brown and these rottweilers. Alas, it is not because one can doubt Rawnsley’s research. The excruciatingly laboured (to coin a phrase) justifications and rationales PM and AC are putting up in Gordon’s defence just underline the veracity of the reporting. Sad state of affairs.

  • Patrick James

    While Mr Cameron might think that neither the Ashcroft issue nor the Coulson issue are being talked about in pubs etc. I feel these have added to the general wariness about Cameron, the general feeling that he is not telling the truth.

  • Charlie Reynolds

    Looks like the hounds of hell have been unleashed again!

    The polls have narrowed because the Tories have told the truth on the future of the economy and Labour continue to lie. It is going to be bleak. Labour haven’t got the balls to deal with it. Gordon can deal with handing out loads of easy cash but can’t balance a budget. He has never lived in the real world (I am still grateful we were allowed to pay for his cleaner and a lovely summerhouse).

    BTW – it is incredible what an easy ride the media are giving Brown and the government over the bullying and mutual distrust of senior members of the cabinet. It is ruining our country. If it were the Tories – you would be going completely mental by now. The PM and Chancellor can’t stand each other (not surprising given he tried to replace him) and we all know the true story will come out later – why are the media backing away?

    Watching a cabinet who despise their leader but know they can’t replace him, try to mount an election campaign (which i don’t believe they want to win – too many difficult decisions to be made) is bizarre. You couldn’t make it up – it’s so extreme that you would have to say – things can only get better.