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Too many phonehack questions unanswered – and not just for Number 10

Posted on 5 September 2010 | 8:09am

I said before the election campaign that I thought the Andy Coulson/phonehack saga might explode during it, but such was the media desire for David Cameron to be given a quiet life that despite the odd flicker, it never really happened.

It may well be, as News International seem to think, that The New York Times investigation which has breathed fresh life into this is all born of rivalry with Rupert Murdoch, who now owns The Wall Street Journal, something of a NYT rival. But even so, it says something about the state of the UK media that it has taken an American paper to dig around some fairly obvious questions which most British newspapers, not just Murdoch’s, would appear to want to bury.

The Coulson involvement – he was editor of the News of the World at the time all this phone-hacking went on, remember, and is now David Cameron’s communications director – is just one aspect of this story and, given the questioning of his denials of any knowledge of criminal activity, an important one. But the media approach more generally is also an important element of this. Apart from the Guardian and to some extent the Financial Times, ever since Coulson joined Cameron’s team, there has been something of a ‘don’t touch with a bargepole’ feel to this. Partly, this may just be media friends looking after each other, but then again it could be that other newspapers have been benefiting from the same kind of thing that has landed colleagues in jail.

And then there is the role of the police, and the questions that arise from that, questions which John Prescott seems pretty resolute about getting answered. When you recall the zeal with which the Met Police went into the so-called ‘cash for honours’ probe, based on little more than a call for inquiry by a Scottish Nationalist MP, and compare that with the zeal with which they seem to have wanted this one shut down, there does seem to be something odd about their stance. If politicians – or indeed anyone – were the victims of illegal activity, they have the right to know and the right for it to be investigated.

It leaves one wondering whether, just as newspapers don’t want their practices looked at too closely, so the police are worried about too much light being shed on their relationships with newspapers.

In any event, even with most of the media frankly just willing this one away, there are too many questions flowing from it now – for Downing Street, for News International, for the press more generally, and for the police.

  • NickSmeggHead

    The contact of the BBC needs to be looked in as well – my comments about this story on Nick Robinson’s blog on Wednesday were removed.

  • Hugh Marne

    If this had been you, in the days when you were in Number 10, it would be front page and news-leading day after day. I’m pleased Prezza is up on it now, because he won’t let go … we know what he is like

  • Colin Hume

    There is something very fishy about the police handling of this. The out of court settlements with Gordon Taylor for example suggest an understanding there was serious wrongdoing, yet there is no explanation as to why these other situations have gone by the wayside. People need to be able to trust the police and if they think they are covering up for their own kind, it eats into that trust.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Alastair Campbell has said that when the PR person becomes the story, then it is time to go.
    Andrew Neil said that Mr Coulson is either incompetent or complicit.
    In either case Mr Coulson should not be in his current job as the head of communications at Downing Street. David Cameron, like Mr Hague, has shown bad judgement. He personally appointed Mr Coulson.
    Andy Coulson was an interventionist editor at NOTW. Given the scale of the paper´s operation, it is highly unlikely that Mr Coulson did not know about it.
    According to NY Times Mr Coulson was better informed about phone- hacking – in fact, he knew and actively encouraged it. So, why is David Cameron still behind him?
    Mr Coulson is valuable to Cameron because he is a link to the Murdoch media empire. Mr Coulson can also predict the behaviour of the tabloid press.
    But now, instead of damage limitation to Mr Hague, Andy Coulson must protect his own reputation.
    There seems to be unwillingness in British media to investigate their peers.
    People own media companies for profit and public power. They can deliver votes and move opinion.
    Rupert Murdoch´s News International is a dominant force in British newspapers. He wants also a bigger role in TV by taking over Sky and shrinking the BBC.
    Mr Murdoch is an infocapitalist who has a network of business and political power like Silvio Berlusconi. He is interested in British media regulation and who governs the country.
    PCC´s investigation into the phone-hacking scandal was poor. There are also doubts over the Met´s role. No one wants to provoke powerful NI.
    Britain needs plural and diverse media. And strong BBC. Mr Coulson may have misled the parliament and the PM. At least he is becoming a serious embarrassment to David Cameron.

    Ps. Before the 2005 election NOTW, under Mr Coulson, wrote that “the Tories are a Coca-Cola Championship team”.

  • Guest

    I’m not one bit surprised the Times took the lead on this story. I’m an American journalist and pay close attention to the British media, especially the print media. And they seem unbelievably lazy to me.

    Most of the people with bylines seem to do nothing but sit behind a screen and pontificate or watch the BBC and live blog whatever event they’re covering. I’m not sure they even know what a street reporter is and certainly show no signs of having been one…or wishing to be one.

  • Jacquie R

    When are we going to wake up to the fact that the partial monopoly of media ownership in Britain poisons our democracy? Whether it’s Rupert Murdoch or Rupert Bear, our laws should never allow it. We protest at so many injustices, but remain surprisingly comatose over this most basic infringement.

  • Maureen Henry

    I find this terrifying. Murdoch wields such power in this country and even the Met doesn’t want to upset him.One of the Met officer who was part of the original News of the World investigation left to work for News International.Look what Berlusconi is able to do in Italy. The Press Complaints Commission is useless and unless we have an urgent judicial inquiry, Cameron will hand a lot more power to Murdoch. Scary stuff!

  • Maureen Henry

    I find this terrifying. Murdoch wields such power in this country and even the Met doesn’t want to upset him.One of the Met officer who was part of the original News of the World investigation left to work for News International.Look what Berlusconi is able to do in Italy. The Press Complaints Commission is useless and unless we have an urgent judicial inquiry, Cameron will hand a lot more power to Murdoch. Scary stuff!

  • Robert Jackson

    What similarities to the Abdication Crisis in 1936?

    Total clampdown in the British press (the Yanks were lapping up day by day reports of the King’s affair with Mrs Simpson).

    Establishment running round in secret with their moralising nicks in a twist.

    No comment from the Liberal Lloyd George because he was out of the country with his mistress.

    DC isn’t even heir to Stanley Baldwin to sort this mess out – let alone TB.

  • Anonymous

    Quentin Lett’s extraordinarily lazy, ill thought out comments on why he though this was not a big issue on Any Questions on Friday just highlight the arrogance of the right that any wrong by one of their kind is of no consequence. Pressure must be kept on the police and Cameron on this.

  • Nicolas Tennant

    Anybody hear Alan Duncan on channel 4 news last night? An absolute blanket denial that there is even a story to be had concerning this. The law has been broken, lies told, and a less than proficient police enquiry. A worry is that because most of the hacked victims who are no seeking further inquiry are ex-Labour cabinet ministers the Press and Opposition are going to label their concern sour grapes.

    And yes, I agree Coulson should go.

  • Anonymous

    Did anyone see Andy Duncan on Channel 4 news last night? Astounding. An arrogant display of flippancy as ever I’ve seen. His cavalier dismissal of any wrong doing by the Press, lack of proficiency from police, and his accusation that any complaint of infringement of civil liberty by any of the hacked victims as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, was as worrying as it was flippant. Integrity of the Press concerns us all, and is mightily important to any democracy. My concern is that figures such as John Prescott and Tessa Jowell are only going to garner ridicule and accusations of sour-grapes if they pursue any legal enquiry.

    And, yes, Coulson HAS become the story and he should go.

  • Fidelcullen666

    Look at our print media ownership. By sales, prob 25 – 40% owned by Murdoch. Two tax exiles on Sark own the Telegraph. A pornographer with delusions of normality owns Express & Star that leaves Mirror, Mail & Scott Trust with the Guardian. It saddens me that ANY political party, to win an election, has to sell their soul to The Digger!

  • taurus43

    hear hear… what a twerp Letts can be; like a minor character in a Thackeray novel. Also, his constant sniping at William Hague was pretty offensive if downright immature.

  • Jacquie R

    Have just read Will Hutton’s excellent piece in today’s Observer about the “Berlusconisation” of Britain. He urges Clegg and the Lib Dems to insist on the establishment of a media commission “to examine Britain’s media ownership and competition rules.” People from all parties should press for this and I hope it becomes a theme at the annual conferences. The timing couldn’t be more crucial, with the size of the BBC being threatened and Sky’s power poised to expand. We can’t keep our heads in the sand any longer.

  • Guest

    So why do you pay close attention to them then?

  • Guest

    So why do you pay close attention to them then?

  • stevo

    Coulsons toast-Nick Robinson to replce him?? Now theres a thought……….

  • Hi Alastair,

    As an Aussie, I didn’t really follow this story, but read the New York Times article after reading your blog post here and was amazed! It seems to me to be a genuine case of the political process (and civil society) being corrupted and perverted by commercial interests.

    If this happened in the antipodes, I’d like to think there would be an outcry!


  • Stan

    Can you point out the law that was broken?

    My understanding is that wiretapping covers coversations that are in-progress. What was done, will morally wrong, is the equivalent of listening to someones answerphone while they are out of the room making you a coffee and seems to be explicitly excluded from the wiretapping laws that I have checked.

    As for sounding like sour grapes – if the MP’s calling for the review had done something while they were in power, maybe it wouldn’t be sour grapes 🙂

  • Alexmasterley

    Sure Coulson “knew” that voicemails wre hacked without being told, because the stories wouldn’t have come out without a voicemail hack.

    Its just like you and Blair “knew” there were no WMD in Iraq because there were never any spy satellite photographs of WMD installations. If there had been any WMD, there would have been credible photographs.

    Coulson turns a blind eye to the truth. You did the same. Big deal.

  • The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” still applies to Mr Coulson.

    Much as I’m sure it would give many a warm, smug feeling inside, people shouldn’t be fired from their jobs just because someone thinks ‘it all looks a bit dodgy’.

  • dpac73

    You may be right. But didn’t two NoW journo’s go to jail for exactly that? To be honest I think most of the media over here were slow to pick up on the story because I guess these unscrupulous practices happen at most of them.

  • Myrabenson

    For all coverage of the phone-hacking scandal, delete the words ‘Andy Coulson’ and insert ‘Alastair Campbell’. Then imagine the media furore this would have caused for the remainder of the Labour government’s time in power and indeed, would continue to cause forever. The most blatant case of multiple standards ever.