Alex Massie

Andy Coulson Needs Better Defenders

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He also needs more of them. Of course Labour are hyping the Coulson Affair to the maximum. Any opposition party would. As tends to be the case in such stories it's useful, I think, to ask how you'd feel if it was all the other way round. If this were a story about Alastair Campbell many of those defending Coulson (or just keeping quiet) would be demanding his resignation and, equally, many of those Labour MPs agitating for Coulson's dismissal would be silent if this were a Labour scandal.

So, yes, this is more about politics than principle. (And about the New York Times vs the Wall Street Journal.) Nevertheless, the principle matters too. Iain Dale says that Coulson is "bloody good at his job" and his accusers can all "go to hell" and anyway:

Coulson took responsibility for the episode at the time and resigned. What do they want him to do - resign a second time from a job which has nothing to do his previous incarnation?

Fair enough. Except that being a former editor of the News of the World was one of the things that made Coulson an attractive candidate when Cameron was looking for a press guy.

In any case, we're asked to believe that there was only one reporter at the Screws engaged in this sort of behaviour. Since we also know that other papers have used the same news-gathering "techniques" perhaps every blatt has its Designated Phone Hack Guy who takes care of this business for the whole news desk? Somehow that doesn't seem probable.

Apart from the behaviour of the Met - itself an interesting and potentially significant aspect of the affair - Coulson''s fate may come down to whether or not he lied to parliament. As the NYT put it:

John Whittingdale, the committee’s chairman and a Tory, said he felt misled by News International executives who testified two years before that Goodman and Mulcaire acted alone. At the new hearings that July, Coulson maintained he had been unaware of the illegal activities. “I have never condoned the use of phone hacking, and nor do I have any recollection of incidences where phone hacking took place,” he said.

As television cameras rolled, Adam Price, a committee member, pointed to the paper’s story about the lap-dancing message Prince William had left on his brother’s phone. As editor, Price asked Coulson, you “would not have checked the provenance of that story?” “Not necessarily, no,” Coulson replied, “and I do not remember the story.”

The credibility of this testimony is a matter for you to decide for yourself.

Coulson may be a reformed character - and, for all I know, a lovely guy - but there are a host of reasons why treating this as a Blue Team vs Red Team affair isn't quite good enough. Again, as Peter Oborne put it earlier this year:

It is no exaggeration to state that under the editorship of Coulson the News of the World was running what was effectively a large private intelligence service, using some of the same highly intrusive techniques as MI5. This illegal surveillance was targeted at the most famous and most powerful men and women in Britain, including footballers, politicians, members of the government, police and military. The budget stretched to hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, probably more. As deputy editor, and then editor, Coulson was routinely commissioning and editing stories to which these investigators had contributed vital information.

Perhaps Coulson never knew the provenance of the information supporting these stories and perhaps he never cared to ask. But, look, you can loathe John Prescott or the BBC all you like but that doesn't mean that this isn't a story and, to boot, one that's been brewing from the moment David Cameron hired Andy Coulson.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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