Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Having focussed initially on the grievances of celebrities and distressed relatives, the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics will start taking evidence in the New Year from newspaper proprietors and executives and the repercussions are likely to become increasingly uncomfortable for David Cameron.

Unanswered questions over the extent to which the Prime Minister was aware of illegal phone hacking at the News of the World are also bound to return to the political agenda if the Metropolitan Police decides to lay charges against the paper’s ex-editor Andy Coulson or any of the other seventeen former employees of News International who have been arrested and are currently on bail.

Because the opening stages of the inquiry concentred on the experiences of those who had suffered at the hands of media intrusion – and the ongoing unresolved dispute among journalists over who-knew-what about the extent of phone hacking – Cameron has been largely insulated from any further damaging fall-out from his decision to hire Coulson in May 2007 as the Conservatives’ media strategist, and then take him into Downing Street as the government’s director of communications after the 2010 general election.

But as media proprietors and executives have to begin accounting for their own behaviour, they will inevitably face questions from Lord Justice Leveson and his team of lawyers about the wider ramifications which flowed from the once dominant position of News International and the abrupt closure of the News of the World. 

One of the most troubling unknowns about Cameron is the mystery over precisely what he knew himself – or asked – about Coulson’s role at the News of the World.  It is a question mark over the Prime Minister’s judgement which gets to the heart of the collusion between politicians and media owners. 

Why were successive Prime Ministers so fearful of the Murdoch press?  How did Cameron come to depend on Coulson?  Why was the Prime Minister prepared to accept for so long the explanation that phone hacking involved a single “rogue reporter?”

During his 2005 campaign for the Conservative Party leadership, Cameron had castigated New Labour for its cynical manipulation of the media but my own conclusion in early 2007 was that he had become as desperate as Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell had been in the mid 1990s to find ways to woo Rupert Murdoch.

An insight into the gear shift which was taking place within the Tory high command emerged in the autumn of 2011 in a speech by the Conservative MP George Eustice, who was Cameron’s press secretary in early 2007 at the time Coulson was recruited to become the party’s chief spin doctor.

Eustice revealed that initially, on winning the leadership, Cameron tried to adopt a distant relationship with the print media; the party’s analysis was that under Blair there was too much emphasis on getting the headlines right. “Our position was not to respond to page one headlines...but it was very hard to sustain that and abandoned in 2007.”

Coulson’s comeback after his resignation as editor caught the Westminster village on the hop but he offered what Cameron so clearly lacked, a media strategist with the clout and experience who could help shape and manage an agenda which would appeal to the popular press and hopefully win the support of the proprietor of Britain’s two most widely read tabloids, the Sun and the News of the World. 

Coulson, like Alastair Campbell, was well versed in the media mindset but unlike Blair’s infamous propagandist, he was not addicted to personal promotion, and clearly had no wish to become the centre of attention. Nor was he tempted subsequently to start antagonising lobby correspondents by adopting Campbell’s tactic of divide and rule when dealing with journalists or in attempting to intimidate those considered “unhelpful” to the government.

Despite the initial controversy over the appointment of a former red-top editor as the Tories’ spin supremo, Coulson was able to prove beyond doubt that his expertise in crisis pr was more than a match for the No.10 press office. His sure touch had been demonstrated in June 2008 when Cameron appeared to be threatened by the unexpected resignation of the then shadow Home Secretary, David Davis.

Coulson’s handling of what had been a potentially destabilising event was cited by Danny Rogers, editor of PR Week, when Coulson was named public relations professional of the year in October 2008.  He was said to have gained control of the Davis story by responding “quickly and decisively”. 

In the event, a messy shadow cabinet resignation was a mere dress rehearsal for the stress test which unfolded in May 2009 when the Daily Telegraph began publishing its highly-acclaimed run of exclusive stories exposing the scandal over MPs’ expenses.

On the strength of his inside knowledge of the newspaper industry, Coulson was able to devise media strategies which helped Cameron keep one step ahead of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and ride out a wave of public anger.

Cameron was able to pre-empt each fresh round of disclosures with headline-grabbing initiatives designed to show the Conservatives were taking the toughest action against the MPs whose abuse of the expenses system had scandalised the public, a strategy which kept the Labour government firmly on the defensive.

As he approached the end of his second year as the Conservatives’ director of communications, Coulson could hardly have been in a stronger position.  Not only had he gained the respect of both the party’s press officers and the Westminster lobby correspondents, but he was also well on the way towards achieving Cameron’s goal of un-coupling Murdoch’s newspapers from Labour, re-connecting them to the Conservatives and assisting the shadow cabinet to formulate policies designed to appeal to the executives of News International.  

A discussion document which warned that the BBC’s “dominant online presence” created a “real danger of crowding out innovation in a multi-channel, multi-platform era” was the first indication that a Cameron-led government had every intention of heeding the clamour of media companies for less regulation in the broadcasting sector and a curb on the continued expansion of BBC output.

Before the BBC Trust had time to reply, the management were engulfed in the damaging furore after the Radio 2 presenters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand left obscene messages on the telephone answering machine of the Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs.

Failure to honour guidelines on taste and decency left the BBC’s hierarchy at the mercy of the legendary hostility of the Murdoch press. “BBC £14 million fat cat scandal” was the News of the World’s banner headline over a report revealing that more than fifty of its executives earned more than the Prime Minister.  Coulson needed no further encouragement.  Cameron leaped into the controversy next day with a signed article in the Sun: “Bloated BBC out of touch with viewers.”

Here was a ready-made opportunity for Cameron to put in writing the Conservatives’ pledge to rein in a BBC which had “over reached” itself and “become bloated with many of its executives overpaid.”  Another bold headline in the Sun in March 2009 underlined the depth of the Conservatives’ commitment to scale back the BBC: “Cameron: We’ll freeze the licence fee.”

His pitch for endorsement by the News International titles could not have been any more blatant: If the Conservatives were elected they were ready to be as accommodating as Margaret Thatcher had been when her government waved through Murdoch’s take-over of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981 and gave the go ahead for the launch of Sky Television in 1989 and the merger with British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990 to form BSkyB.

In the two years he had worked for Cameron, Coulson had gone a long way towards detoxifying public perceptions about his own share of the blame for the phone-hacking scandal.  A general election was only a matter of months away and traditional political loyalties were beginning to kick in. 

Conservative-supporting newspapers had no intention of giving currency to what they dismissed as nothing more than The Guardian’s on-going obsession with a left-wing vendetta against the Murdoch press.  Similarly, most political correspondents had no wish to jeopardise their relationship with the Tories’ media team by resurrecting Coulson’s link with the News of the World just when the story seemed to be going nowhere.

My own assessment at the time of reaction among correspondents, reporters and producers, across press and broadcasting, was a widespread feeling that Coulson had shown himself worthy of the “second chance” which Cameron had afforded him.

Having a former tabloid editor in a key role at the heart of the Conservatives’ media machine found favour with most political journalists because they preferred dealing with a communications director who was well versed in the rules of the game when it came to arranging preferential access or exclusive interviews.

The first public indication that Murdoch had switched sides was the Sun’s front-page banner headline “Labour’s lost it”, on the morning after Gordon Brown’s speech at the 2009 Labour Party conference.  Once the election campaign began in earnest the Murdoch press was unanimous in calling for a change of government and on polling day all four titles endorsed the Conservatives.

If Cameron harboured any further doubts about having taken with him into Downing Street a former News of the World editor to head up the No.10 press office, they were quickly dispelled by the leadership which Coulson displayed in welding together two highly-partisan teams of Conservative and Liberal Democrat propagandists who had just spent an election campaign making it their daily business to oppose each other.

In three years as the Conservatives’ top spin doctor, and eight months in Downing Street, Coulson had barely put a foot wrong. Cameron could claim with every justification that there had been no complaints about the way Coulson had dealt with the news media or handled government information.

But well before the final denouement of Rupert and James Murdoch in the wake of the revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, Coulson had been forced to resign.  In a brief comment, he stuck firmly to his previous denials of responsibility: “I stand by what I’ve said about those events but when the spokesman needs a spokesman it’s time to move on.”

Cameron’s day of reckoning awaits him.  After Coulson’s arrest in July 2011 the Prime Minister told MPs that he hired the former tabloid editor on the basis of the assurances he gave that he did not know about phone-hacking and was not involved in criminality.

“He gave those self-same assurances to the police, to a select committee of this House and under oath to a court of law.  If it turns out that he lied, it won’t just be that he shouldn’t have been in government, it will be that he should be prosecuted.”

Cameron is inextricably linked to Coulson’s fate. The Prime Minister’s judgement remains on the line and so does his record in government. Within five months of the general election Cameron had honoured his promise to curb the excesses of a “bloated” BBC. A six-year freeze in the licence fee was included in the comprehensive spending review of October 2010. 

And in July 2011 the government said it was “ready to give clearance” to News Corporation’s bid for full control of BSkyB.  Although it was thought to have been only within days of getting final approval, the deal had to be aborted after publication of The Guardian’s revelation that the News of the World had hacked into messages left on the mobile phone of a murdered schoolgirl.

Illustration: The Independent, 24 July, 2010

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Read in full Nicholas Jones’ chapter – “How did a British Prime Minister come to depend on an ex-editor of the News of the World? – in The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, to be published by Arima Publishing, Bury St Edmunds, in February 2012.