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Friday, January 21, 2011 

Bang! And Coulson is gone!

Courtesy of Lib Con and @nick4glengate.

(Apologies for the dreadful headline.)

mid ever greater insecurity and doubt, there is always something you can rely on in the world of politics: commentators with a supposed direct line to the pugilists themselves getting it horribly wrong. Here's Benedict Brogan, the Telegraph's sage and conduit writing on Tuesday on how Andy Coulson would conduct his resignation, should it come to it:

What happens next is anyone’s guess. I had always imagined that having decided to enter Number 10 with Dave, Mr Coulson would give it a year and then move on to even greater things. A statement between now and Easter, say, confirming that he will move on after the May elections for example would not have surprised me. Now it’s not so easy. As is always the case in these situations, finding a quiet moment when such a move can be announced without appearing to be a reaction to headlines is tricky. Mr Coulson has shown that one of his greatest skills is loyalty, so it may be that he will know better than his boss when the time has come to make that announcement.

Coulson, an apprentice to Labour's spin machine to the last, chose to do so as Tony Blair was giving evidence for a second time to the Chilcot inquiry. A truly quiet moment, and certainly not planned with the intention of attempting to bury the bad news. Brogan, almost inevitably, starts his entry on Coulson's departure with the claim that he was right.

To invoke and paraphrase Lady Bracknell, as is almost required, to resign once over something you profess you knew nothing about is unfortunate; to do so twice looks like carelessness. The real issue isn't that it was always has been and remains laughable that Coulson didn't know about phone hacking when he helmed the most salacious, sensationalist and disreputable of all the mass-selling tabloids, it's that David Cameron and presumably everyone else involved in appointing him as the party's chief spin doctor either believed him and fell for the "rogue reporter line", or they felt that it was irrelevant to his new job of dealing with the self-same scum suckers he had presided over previously. It's not even as if Coulson's only offence while working for the Screws was to be apparently completely oblivious to what his other executives were authorising;
he was also personally involved in the bullying of a sports reporter who failed to stand up a story about the colour shirt Arsenal were to play in the following season. As I've repeated here many times, Alastair Campbell's worst offence while a journalist was to get involved in a fist fight with Michael White on the day of Robert Maxwell's death; his abuses took place while chief press officer. Coulson's potential complicity in the illegality of blagging and phone hacking was hardly a secret.

If anything, it seems to have been Cameron's reliance on his "golden Essex boy" that's meant he hasn't resigned sooner. Did Coulson
really want to give evidence in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial while still in his position, for instance? He surely must be worried if the rumours Ian Edmondson is prepared to tell all are true that there won't just be the very distant possibility of a charge from the review of the original evidence, but also the potential for his words in the witness box to come back to haunt him. He didn't just deny any knowledge of phone hacking whilst at the paper, as he did during his appearance before the culture, media and sport parliamentary committee, he also claimed to know nothing about the other man at the centre of the scandal, Glenn Mulcaire, something which seems even more risible.

Quite why Cameron thinks so highly of Coulson is itself something of a mystery. Important and as helpful as he must be when it comes to dealing with Murdoch and News International, he's hardly helped make the Conservatives the natural party of government once again. For all his supposed skill and nous, he and the Tories couldn't take the worst recession since the 1930s and Labour's general unfitness to continuing governing and turn it into an outright election victory. He may have helped "decontaminate the brand" and give an insight into what the average News of the World readers wants in a politician, yet he failed to win enough of them over or back when it came down to it. The past week has seen the Sun lead an
increasingly vitriolic campaign on the price of fuel, something else that seems to have all but passed Coulson and Cameron by. Some in the party will not be sad to see him go, even if the circumstances could have been better.

Where this leaves the continuing inquiry into the phone-hacking inquiry is less clear.
As set out on Tuesday, it does give News International an opportunity to be more open and admit its past mistakes now it no longer has to also defend the virtue of its past editor in quite the same way. Whether it takes it up is something else entirely, especially when you consider at every step of the way so far it has chosen to rely on secrecy and increasingly ludicrous denials instead of even attempting to look somewhat accountable. Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade), it's worth remembering, said that the Guardian's reporting had "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public". David Cameron had no qualms about spending part of his Christmas in the company of someone with such a breathtaking line in cant.

The most important thing we should take from Coulson's resignation though is that the Murdoch press and those who work for it, despite everything that seems to stand in the way, can be brought down to size. Most of the media, either through embarrassment at knowing they were just as much involved in phone-hacking as the Screws was or through the old belief that dog doesn't eat dog initially downplayed or all but ignored the scandal. It's been the tenacity of the Guardian and Nick Davies especially in refusing to let the story die, repeatedly finding new angles that has eventually led to today, helped along by the Independent, New York Times and the broadcast media being similarly indefatigable. The only way now for the entire debacle to be laid to rest is through a judicial review of all the evidence. Those who had their privacy infringed by a newspaper that even by its standards was out of control deserve nothing less.

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I hope that the unhealthily close relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International for payment for leaks that was revealed by Rebekka Brooks at the Parliamentary Committee does not slip away quietly.

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