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On Andy Coulson, Cameron’s judgement and an even higher profile for the BSkyB decision

Posted on 21 January 2011 | 5:01pm

First of all, a memo to all media outlets (I know that sounds a bit grand and lahdidah but they have been phoning, texting and emailing all day, first to ask if I will talk about TB at the Iraq Inquiry and then, in greater numbers, if I would talk about Andy Coulson’s departure as David Cameron’s comms director.) Memo as follows: No.

One or two of my book people are a bit hacked off, thinking that with a new volume of diaries out, the opportunity to get your face all over the telly and your voice all over the radio must be seized! So sorry to them, and sorry to the programmes, but something makes me think it is better to stay where I am, at my desk, working away on other stuff, than get out there trying to make life difficult for Mr Cameron because of Mr Coulson.

I was tempted. Indeed on hearing the news, I tweeted – wrongly as it turned out – that there must be some urgent reason for his departure if it was being announced as Tony Blair gave evidence. I tweeted too that the issue would move quickly to David Cameron’s judgement, as it seems to have done.

But no, on balance I thought stay in and watch TB. Of course at one point they cut from TB to hear David Cameron’s reaction to his press man’s departure, and I was further tempted to get out on the story when the PM rather unpleasantly rolled me into a sentence with the words dodgy dossier and Damian McBride. He has done the ‘Campbell-McBride’ thing before, despite the fact Andy himself once told me he does not remotely see me in the same light. Politics is politics and all that.

I have always got on perfectly well with Andy Coulson. Whatever else was going on in the industrial phone-hacking department, I always found him straightforward to deal with when I was in Number 10 and he was at the News of the World. He never struck me as being very political, so I was surprised when he moved to the Cameron comms team on George Osborne’s recommendation.

I am not in a position to judge whether he did a good job, because I had very few dealings with him, though the Labour team that negotiated the terms of the TV debates said he was fine. I can’t say I was overly impressed with the Cameron campaign, though fair to say they did a good job getting the media on their side. But in truth, given the economic and political circumstances of the time, the election was made for a change of government and they failed to get a majority.

In government, he seemed to have settled in well enough, though there was constant talk of friction with Steve Hilton. He was also good enough to take on an idea I had a few weeks back for a TV idea, to which he and the PM could easily have said no, but to which they agreed, so I am grateful for that. When I spoke to him, he said he had been re-reading the section of The Blair Years that covered our first year in government, and was ‘learning a lot.’ You really don’t get a day off do you, he said.

But what I found surprising about today’s announcement is that he hasn’t really been as big a focus of attention as he might have been. He talked about the time having come when the spokesman needed a spokesman, but I’m not sure it had really come to that. I did a public meeting recently at which someone asked why everyone seemed to know who Tony Blair’s comms director was, but nobody knew David Cameron’s. I was taken aback and asked for a show of hands. About ten per cent knew it was Andy Coulson. I do sometimes wonder what the media would have been like if I had still been in charge, and had left a phone-hacking scandal behind me.

But the point is that is is impossible for others to tell what individual people are feeling about the jobs they do, and the pressures they feel they are under. There is a line in Power and the People, very soon after we take office, when I say to Fiona that I am not sure I am as cut out for government as I was for campaigning. Yet most of the time I felt like a round peg in a round hole, though the pressure and the intensity of the workload did get to me at times.

Anyway, I wish him well. But I do think the Cameron judgement question is a real one. The News of the World story was just too toxic. I have said before that one of the reasons it keeps rumbling along is that no journalist I know can understand how an editor wouldn’t know where big stories came from. It rumbles on too because of the News Corp attempted buy-out of BSkyB.

If, as is thought to be the case, the government wants the takeover to happen without further investigation, they may feel that is easier with Andy Coulson out of the way. In fact I think it makes no difference. If anything, it reminds people even more dramatically of the politically charged nature of the decision confronting culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. The truth on the phone-hacking is being dragged kicking and screaming from a reluctant News Corp and a reluctant police. It is being dragged nonetheless and even if it should not be tied up with the takeover, it is.

  • Jacquie R

    The growth of the gutter press, the dumbing down of society, the ruination of private lives, the phone-hacking, the coercion, blackmail and bribery of public servants and public figures, the dark influence over government and policy …. the list goes on. And it’s always Rupert Murdoch behind it.

    It’s not just that he’s behind it, it’s that we’ve ALLOWED him to be behind it.
    The government now wants him to have even MORE power by taking over BSkyB.

    It’s mad and sad – but mainly bad..

  • Sarah Dodds

    Won’t / can’t claim this as my own, but I think it’ a gem

    “Has anyone got Steve Coogan’s number? I want to leave a consolation message for Andy Coulson.”

  • Steve Cooke

    Herr Goebbels,
    The reason why Andy Coulson & other PM spokespersons are/were relatively unknown or anonymous is/was because unlike you they never sought the spotlight. I remember that from the day TB came to power in ’97, you were known by people (man in the street) and you sought to keep yourself in the spotlight. And then when the David Kelly matter came along, you took yourself to Channel 4 to complain about the BBC. Did that look like a PM’s spokesperson. Of course not. Even now, look at yourself and compare yourself to John Major’s spokesperson or GB’s spokesperson. Do you think the others are going to release diaries like you have & in the way that you are doing so, first an abridged version and now in excruciating detail at a rate of 2 volumes a year or is it one? And even last night, you appeared on BBC Question Time it appears IN PLACE of an elected Labour representative. do you think Coulson is going to do that? So, having put yourself “out there”, you really do not have any justification complain about why you attract publicity. Some are good & some are bad. That’s life…well, that’s politics.

  • Sarah Dodds

    They just keep coming.
    “Show your support for Coulson by leaving him a message on your voicemail”.

  • Jacka Simpson

    On the question of Andy Coulson, I personally find it very unpleasant how someone who’s never been proven guilty has been practically bullied out. As for it bringing Cameron’s judgement into doubt, a) Andy Coulson is innocent until proven guilty and b) people deserve a second chance, unless they’ve committed a particularly heinous crime like murder or rape. What I would say on the question of the PM’s comments about the ‘dodgy dossier’ is that I am a Conservative and a big fan of the PM, but I really do think it’s wrong that he refers to this when you’ve been cleared of doing anything dishonest over Iraq; it’s unfair and it must be incredibly frustrating, particularly when my party supported the war, rightly in my view. Whilst I disagree with you strongly on a whole range of domestic policy (not least because Tony Blair backed us on deficit reduction and public service reform in his memoirs), I really respect your resilience in the face of some exceptionally painful accusations over the years. It must be hideous to have the likes of George Galloway actually accusing you of murder on national television. Mr Galloway talks about the consequences of war for the Iraqi people whilst ignoring what was happening to them under Saddam. You have kept your dignity and I admire you for that – most people would have been completely unable to cope. Bless you and Tony Blair (though not your party!) Your courage is astounding.

  • Percy

    Andy Coulson really isn’t a big loss for the Tories. The campaign was theirs’ for the taking and they blew it. The only real hand of Coulson that impressed was Cameron’s handling of the Mirror’s stunt. You know the one where they get reporters dressed as animals (ha ha ha it was probably a great wheeze when it was first suggested – sometime in 1954). But by getting Cameron to challenge the poor bloody reporter he killed a stunt that could have been a nuisance and got great TV coverage.
    Speaking of which is anyone in any doubt that Coulson’s decision to let Cameron go on the TV debates wasn’t a monumental mistake? In truth it can probably be explained by the fact that BSkyB wanted them.
    As for Coulson not being political – spot on. My sources tell me that while he was still editor he suddenly decided he wanted to go to the Conservative Party conference. The job fell on the political team to get him a meet with Cameron. I’m told that in the end he made do with a shadow minister.

  • Herr Goebbels, Steve?

    Bit early in the discussion for Godwin’s Law to take effect, but all the same, well done.

  • Gilliebc

    Watching the highlights of TB at the Iraq enquiry today, I was reminded of just what a class act he is. Some others will no doubt disagree. But, imho Tony Blair was and still is head and shoulders above anyone else in front-line politics today. I have to admit I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the Iraq invasion. In fact, when it was first mooted I thought it was a mad, unnecessary and unjustified war. But it happened and is now history. Just such a shame that it ruined TB’s premiership and soured his reputation.
    Regarding Andy Coulson, if he didn’t sanction the ‘phone-tapping when he was editor of the News of the World, he certainly should have known about it!
    Very enjoyable QT last night AC, thought you did a very good job as always.
    I reckon Caroline Spellman has modeled herself on Maggie. The supercillious manner, the disdainful glances at other panel members, don’t think she’d win many popularity polls. Was unable to agree with much that the footballer said. However, he is very “easy on the eye” has to be said!
    George Galloway, odious as ever. Simon Hughes, sad as ever. If I cared about SH I would be worried about him.

  • Dave Simons

    I disagree with a lot of what you say but I do find it refreshing to read a serious contribution from a Conservative supporter. It makes a change from nicknames like ‘DrEaDful Moribund’, ‘Alastair Campbell is dog dirt’ and all the other nasty, insulting one-liners about evil Brown, examples of which you’ll find if you visit previous topics on this blog.
    I agree that Andy Coulson is innocent until proven guilty – as we all should be – but there is real cause for anxiety about the process of investigation, which seems to suggest a murky network of alliances between the Murdoch empire, the Metropolitan Police and the Conservative Party.
    As for George Galloway, he may not be the most endearing politician and he certainly did himself no favours by meeting Saddam and featuring on Big Brother, but he does make some very good points and he was excellent when he faced up to the Americans a few years back.

  • Robert


    Thank you for leading me to a rather interesting ten minutes trawling through Godwin’s Law – Usenet groups are a complete mystery. Nowadays somewhat archaic?

    I think you’ll find AC’s blog posts and the replies move on sufficiently quickly as to automatically apply Quirk’s Exception.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Andy Coulson has now resigned twice because he knew nothing. Very, very odd.
    Not only Mr Cameron´s judgement is called into question, Messrs Osborne and Hague also endorsed Andy Coulson.
    It has been said that David Cameron kept Mr Coulson in his job because the story did not resonate with the public. He was also important in telling the mood of the country to the PM and, of course, in keeping touch with editors and newspaper magnates.
    Whenever there is a big story in a newspaper, the editor wants to know where the information for it came from. I guess not a single journalist in Britain has been able to believe that Mr Coulson did not know about phone-hacking. If he did not, he was incompetent.
    We have known since the original court case that many journalists have been hacking phones as the judge said that Mr Mulcaire had dealt with “others at News International”.
    Yet NI was allowed to continue with one “rogue reporter” defence as MPs, police etc. fear the organisation so much.
    Now that the omerta has been broken, we know that others also knew about hacking. Shame for NI, the police and PCC.
    What we need now is an independent review of the Met´s handling of the affair. In 2003 the then editor of the Sun, Rebekah Brooks (Wade), admitted that the paper had paid the police for information. There have been suggestions in the papers that some sort of “special relationship” existed between NI and the police. Ms Brooks is nowadays the chief executive of NI, News Corp´s UK newspaper arm.
    The phone-hacking scandal has about 1,000-2,000 victims, so the story will go on and on.
    Latest twist in the story is that NI might be paying the legal fees of Mr Mulcaire.
    All this does not help News Corp´s £7.5bn takeover of BSkyB which must be prevented at any cost. These days it is possible to bundle information and products, and the merged company would so be able to destroy its competitors because of its dominant market position.
    I do not support the idea that the deal can go through if Murdoch sells either the Times or Sky News.
    Wapping has hired Simon Greenberg to sort out the phone-hacking. It will take time. My sincere hope is that Andy Coulson will not be forced to resign again in the future.
    But we need a full investigation into this scandal.

  • Chris lancashire

    So Cameron’s judgement is in question? Maybe so. But it doesn’t compare with deciding to invade Iraq or selling our gold at a £7bn loss. Did anybody die? Has any taxpayer’s money been wasted? No.

    Where Cameron’s judgement was wrong was in thinking he needed a spinmeister in the Campbell mould in the first place. A plague on all your houses.

  • Sarah Dodds

    I’d answer your “did anyone die?” question with a “not yet, as far as we know.”
    The deaths that will lay at Cameron’s door will be due to cuts. And tragically, they will come. You can deny it all you wish, but it will happen.
    And as for tax-payers money being wasted? Free Schools, EMA, change to NHS structure?

  • Chris lancashire

    Whatever the cuts result in I doubt it will amount to 600,000 dead.

  • Richard

    It would be interesting from hear from AC how much HE knew about illegal tapping of phone lines when he was in Downing St. We are not naive enough to believe that TB/GB did not sanction such tactics against those who did not toe the line!