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Tuesday, November 24, 2009 

How very strange...

Having been "cleared" by the PCC's ludicrous non-investigation into the Guardian's allegations of widespread phone hacking at the News of the World, editor at the time and now chief Tory spin doctor Andy Coulson must have thought that was an end to any controversy concerning his tabloid past. The only blot on the horizon was Matt Driscoll, a former sports reporter on the Screws, who Coulson sacked while he was off sick for stress-related depression. Driscoll, quite understandably, took News International to a tribunal, alleging that the route cause of his illness was due to the bullying he had suffered at the paper, led by none other than Coulson.

The tribunal decided back in December that Driscoll had been both unfairly dismissed and discriminated against on the grounds of disability, but only yesterday did the amount of compensation which Driscoll was awarded come to light. The tribunal decided upon a quite staggering £792,736, which with legal costs will probably amount to a total bill to News International of around a million. Adding in the costs of settling with Gordon Taylor and two others over the phone hacking allegations, Coulson has cost Murdoch in total around £2,000,000. For someone who despite being fabulously wealthy is remarkably parsimonious when it comes to others spending his money, Murdoch senior (and doubtless also junior) will be seething.

Not of course that you would know any of this if you read a paper other than the Grauniad. Neither the Times nor the Telegraph has so much has mentioned, either now or back in December that Coulson had been found to be bully in chief as well as editor in chief. On the one hand, it's not exactly a revelation that tabloid editors are not often the most sympathetic and understanding of individuals, and that while it's probably not as bad as it was when the pressures were much bigger back during the tabloid hey-day of the 80s, newsrooms aren't exactly the most enlightened of offices. On the other, what's most instructive, both of the battle of egos in such workplaces, and also potentially of Coulson's own character, is the petty way the bullying of Driscoll started. Driscoll failed to stand up a rumour that Arsenal were planning to play their last season at Highbury before moving to their new stadium in purple, commemorative shirts, rather than their traditional red and white, with the scoop instead being stolen by, of all papers, the Sun. You could perhaps understand Coulson's apparent ire more if Driscoll had failed to stand up a rumour on the equivalent of say, Ronaldo moving to Real Madrid for £80 million. A fairly poxy story about Arsenal playing in a different kit seems rather inconsequential, but not apparently to Coulson.

Again, you can perhaps understand why the tribunal's ruling was never going to lead to David Cameron giving Coulson the heave-ho. After all, one of the major parts of spin doctoring is in effect bullying and cajoling journalists, not to mention politicians, and that's without wondering whether there's any truth behind the more wildly fictional antics of Malcolm Tucker. Coulson has of course become even more useful as News International has drifted away from New Labour and over to the New Tories; few doubt that Coulson has been at the heart, not just of the discussions behind the Sun switching support to Cameron, but also at the far more significant negotiations concerning the almost wholesale adoption of policies to the benefit of News International, whether it be the quick abolition of Ofcom, one of the few quangos to be directly identified by Cameron as to be hurled onto the bonfire, the attacks on the BBC or the removal of the fuddy-duddy idea that television news has to be impartial, swiftly leading to the transformation of Sky News into a version of Fox News which America knows and loves and which Murdoch senior has long wanted to do. Also likely to be dismantled are the rules on media ownership, with Murdoch probably swallowing ITV whole, although the Sun seems to treat the channel as part of the family already regardless (although the Sky shareholding of 17.9% helps).

Even so, the worst that could be said of Alastair Campbell before he became Tony Blair's chief press officer was that he always treated his bosses, regardless of who they were, with unstinting loyalty, never more exemplified than when he punched Michael White after he made a joke about Robert Maxwell shortly after his death. He certainly wasn't accused by a tribunal of leading the bullying of a vulnerable, sick man he had ultimate authority over. It's worth remembering that back during the "Smeargate" storm in a teacup, when we suddenly discovered, horror of horrors, that spin doctors say unpleasant and sometimes untrue things to others, the impression we received that it was only nasty New Labour that did spin, and spin which brought politics into disrepute in itself. Coulson though now bears the distinction of being notorious for all the wrong reasons before he even gets near to running the media operation of a political party in actual power. The real spinning, it seems, has not even begun.

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