Alex Massie

Andy Coulson’s Phone Problem Returns

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I'm not sure why the New York Times Magazine thinks its readers will be interested in a long piece about the News of the World and its history of phone-hacking but I'm glad that the Times has published this article anyway. Among the most damaging allegations: the suggestion that, for various reasons, the police limited the extent of their inquiries into law-breaking at the Screws. To wit:

That fall, Andy Hayman, the head of the counterterrorism branch, was in his office when a senior investigator brought him 8 to 10 pages of a single-spaced “target list” of names and mobile phone numbers taken from Mulcaire’s home. It read like a British society directory. Scotland Yard officials consulted with the Crown Prosecution Service on how broadly to investigate. But the officials didn’t discuss certain evidence with senior prosecutors, including the notes suggesting the involvement of other reporters, according to a senior prosecutor on the case. The prosecutor was stunned to discover later that the police had not shared everything. “I would have said we need to see how far this goes” and “whether we have a serious problem of criminality on this news desk,” said the former prosecutor, who declined to speak on the record.

Scotland Yard officials ultimately decided the inquiry would stop with Mulcaire and Goodman. “We were not going to set off on a cleanup of the British media,” a senior investigator said. In fact, investigators never questioned any other reporters or editors at News of the World about the hacking, interviews and records show. A police spokesman rejected assertions that officials failed to fully investigate. He said the department had worked closely with prosecutors, who had “full access to all the evidence.” A former senior Scotland Yard official also denied that the department was influenced by any alliance with News of the World. “I don’t think there was any love lost between people inside the investigation and people in the press,” the former official said.

In addition to the royal household, Scotland Yard alerted five other victims whose names would appear in the indictment of Mulcaire. Of the remaining hundreds who potentially had their phones broken into, the police said they notified only select individuals with national-security concerns: members of the government, the police and the military.

There is, then, the hint of collusion betweent the Met and the Screws to keep the investigation limited since each party frequently benefited from the work produced by the other. That's pretty troubling since, effectively, it puts the tabloid press beyond the full application of the law.

That's not all: the article's political significance, of course, comes from the fact that Andy Coulson, then editor of the News of the World, is now David Cameron's Director of Communications. You can expect the left and Labour MPs to call for Coulson to explain himself.

While occasional articles appeared about the various goings-on at News of the World, the scandal was somewhat of a nonscandal in the other tabloids. But The Guardian, a Labor-oriented paper with an undisguised disdain for Murdoch’s publications, aggressively pursued the hacking episode. Its exclusive on the Taylor settlement prompted the parliamentary committee to convene new hearings. 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.”

You can believe these denials if you like. But the article also claims:

A dozen former reporters said in interviews that hacking was pervasive at News of the World. “Everyone knew,” one longtime reporter said. “The office cat knew.”

One former editor said Coulson talked freely with colleagues about the dark arts, including hacking. “I’ve been to dozens if not hundreds of meetings with Andy” when the subject came up, said the former editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The editor added that when Coulson would ask where a story came from, editors would reply, “We’ve pulled the phone records” or “I’ve listened to the phone messages.”

Sean Hoare, a former reporter and onetime close friend of Coulson’s, also recalled discussing hacking. The two men first worked together at The Sun, where, Hoare said, he played tape recordings of hacked messages for Coulson. At News of the World, Hoare said he continued to inform Coulson of his pursuits. Coulson “actively encouraged me to do it,” Hoare said.

It''s not just the left that is concerned by Coulson's presence at the heart of government. As Peter Oborne wrote earlier this year, when he edited the News of the World Coulson was "presiding over what can only be described as a flourishing criminal concern." If he didn't know about it he should have; if he did then it will be hard to him to retain his current job.

David Cameron says everyone deserves a second chance and that's fine but you'd have to think that this affair isn't likely to go away any time soon and that it will be an unecessary distraction for the government. It's rarely a good thing for an aide to become the story but that's what's likey to happen here.

PS: The article does have one Kelvin-worthy anecdote of tabloid bravado:

When a bottlenose whale became stranded in the Thames River in January 2006, the London tabloids raced to put reporters and photographers on boats. One News of the World reporter watched in horror as a wet-suit-clad rival from The Sunday Mirror jumped into the freezing water while a colleague snapped pictures. Back at News of the World, editors were not happy.

“If he doesn’t get into that river and get a picture of us saving the whale by pushing it out to sea,” one journalist recalled Coulson saying of his reporter, “he doesn’t need to bother coming back.” Not to be outdone, Coulson dispatched another reporter to the North Sea to “find the whale’s family.”

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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