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.