Friday, 10 July 2009

Press spies and Andy Coulson

After banking and politics, now it's the turn of journalism - and possibly the police. It is difficult to overstate the potential significance of the Guardian's revelations about reports for the News of the World bugging phones and paying professional snoopers to bend (or break) the law in pursuit of stories. That isn't to say that this bomb will necessarily explode - it seems to have gone slightly quieter today - but if it does, there will be a lot of people (and not just Andy Coulson) ducking for cover.

If nothing else, Nick Davies has (not for the first time) lifted the lid on some of the more putrid aspects of tabloid journalism. Not that his exposé will come as much surprise to those in the business, or to readers of Private Eye, or of his own Flat Earth News, or indeed to anyone who has ever wondered more than fleetingly about where the news comes from. As the ever-diligent SepticIsle notes, stories about (for example) editors paying off the police go back years. But this time, for various reasons, it has the potential to make a much greater impact. That's my sense. (One reason for this may be the much higher profile privacy and surveillance now have - Simon Jenkins has a magisterial piece about the intersection between press snooping and Labours Big Brother legislation.) Certainly, it's highly significant that Asst Commr John Yates - of all people - seems reluctant to investigate it properly. In the end he may have no choice.

But what of Andy Coulson? With a nimbleness of foot that has eluded them in recent months, the Labour machine has succeeded in making this, partially, a story about the Conservative head of communications - and about David Cameron's wisdom in employing a former Screws editor in such a sensitive position. They have had some help in this from the initial Guardian report, which mischeviously dragged Coulson into a story that had little or nothing to do with him. He was not directly involved in any wrongdoing that has yet been been exposed. Unlike Damian McBride, he has not been caught out engaged in political dirty tricks. Unlike Alastair Campbell, he is not accused of misleading the public on facts of profound political significance.

But that hasn't stopped that blackest of pots trying to make an issue of it anyway:


People might just be able to acccept the Goodman incident was a one-off, and that therefore senior executives did not know about it. But if the central allegations in the Guardian are true – and there seems precious little pushing back on them – then it becomes impossible to believe that editors and others were not aware of what was going on. And if they weren't, they were incompetent and negligent on the job, not qualities associated with Coulson or other Murdoch editors.

The statements from Cameron and Coulson go nowhere near answering the questions they have to answer.


Well, you can't blame him for having a go, as Michael White would say. As Toby Helm says, it's "an unbelievable political gift" which has made Labour MPs "beside themselves with excitement". Helm exaggerates when he suggests that the story will "cancel the negatives of the McBride disaster and more". But it does risk creating the impression that David Cameron, like Blair before him, is employing an unscrupulous tabloid attack dog; that "they're all as bad as each other". One can readily understand Cameron's reluctance to sacrifice Coulson. It would deprive him of an effective spokesman; it would cast doubt on his judgement in employing him in the first place; and - given that his past editorship of the NotW has nothing to do with his job - it would be unfair. Nevertheless, appearances are everything. As Campbell found out, when a spin doctor becomes the story he can only damage the party he is supposed to serve.

And Campbell has a point. It is inconceivable that Coulson didn't know, or at least "know", how the News of the World got some of its stories. He was part of that world. The culture that led reporters to bug phones and tip garrulous policemen was not his creation; he cannot be blamed for it. But as editor he participated in it and benefited from it. To be unaware of what was going on he would have had to be staggeringly naive - and no-one becomes editor of the News of the World by being staggeringly naive.

Coulson gave an insight into his world in 2005 in an interview with the Press Gazette, shortly after the Screws had (to the Guardian's disgust) been named Newspaper of the Year. He told them, "I've got nothing to be ashamed of, and this goes for everyone on the NoW, in what we do for a living. The readers are the judges, that's the most important thing. And I think we should be proud of what we do." The piece also noted that "all of the section heads mention the pressure they feel in producing contenders for the splash every week - a culture Coulson inherited, and which he's happy to nurture."

Coulson practically boasted about his closeness of oversight on big news stories:

We talk about our stories in great detail prior to publication. I'm very lucky to have a great executive team here with so much experience. We've got fantastic lawyers. Tom Crone, I believe, is the best newspaper lawyer there is. And the group of us - with the back bench, the news desk, the features desk - we spend a lot of time talking about stories, thinking them through and trying to second guess any problems.

Even those who we brought back who had worked here before were surprised by the degree of discussion and analysis that goes on before we decide to publish a story.


So I think it's safe to say he knew what went on. And, like everyone else involved in the seamier end of the newspaper business, that he was committed to the principle that anything goes so long as it produces a good story. Scandalous stories sell - and as Paul Dacre argued in his notorious speech to the Society of Editors last year, without such stories tabloids like the News of the World might go out of business. You don't have to agree with him that the loss would be a grievous blow to the democratic process to appreciate why those involved in the paper are driven to cut corners in the search for a scoop. As Roy Greenslade put it in the wake of the Max Mosley verdict last year, reporters and editors both are merely "cogs in a scandalous machine that is based on gross hypocrisy".

Coulson is a sideshow - no more or less guilty than anyone else who has sat in the editorial chair of his newspaper, or The Sun - or the Mail for that matter. That should be cold comfort to him and to David Cameron, however. For if the behaviour of News International (and other) journalists comes under the kind of minute scrutiny that MPs have come under, then - like many perfectly honourable MPs caught up in the expenses scandal - Coulson will be judged summarily and be forced out. And Cameron can't be seen to be defending him.