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Thursday, May 10, 2012 

The eternal darkness of Coulson's spotless mind.

If, like me, you've seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and thought that the possibility of having certain memories wiped from your brain isn't necessarily a bad thing, then it seems that at long last a treatment has been developed that can achieve exactly that. It's called the Leveson inquiry.

Difficult as it is to believe, considering we've now had evidence
from both James and Rupert Murdoch, neither of whom could remember almost anything controversial that has happened to them, the latest sufferer of amnesia to testify seems to have the most serious case. Andy Coulson could barely remember his name, let alone almost anything else that's happened to him over the past decade.

Here's an incomplete list of the things he couldn't recall: the conversations he had with Rupert Murdoch about the news content while editor of the News of the World; any conversation with KRM about the paper's endorsement at the 2005 election; any mention of his previous employment when George Osborne enquired whether he'd be interested in becoming the Tories' chief spin doctor; any shadow cabinet minister other than David Cameron asking about phone hacking; whether News Corp's lobbyist, Fred Michel, attended a lunch with Cameron and the then Spanish prime minister; whether Cameron sought further assurances from him after the Guardian's phone hacking revelations in 2009; any specific conversation about the News of the World's endorsement of the Tories in 2010; when he knew that the Sun was going to endorse the Tories in 2009; or having any conversation with Fred Michel, Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Hunt or any other politician about the BSkyB takeover bid.

It was all unflinchingly loyal, and it was also absolutely infuriating. At times Coulson bordered on being incredulous at Robert Jay's questioning; did he really have to spell out why the Tories wanted him to deal with the media? His body language said exactly what he refused to, that it was breathtakingly obvious. As Michael Wolff writes, Coulson was the key conduit between News International and the Conservatives, and he alongside Rebekah Brooks was chiefly responsible for convincing Murdochs junior and senior that Cameron was a surer bet than Labour. It didn't matter that he didn't have a background in politics, as that was secondary. This is exactly why Cameron couldn't have cared less whether Coulson knew about hacking at the Screws, and why he apparently didn't enquire further regardless of all the warnings he was given. As long as he delivered in terms of the reason he was hired, and wasn't catastrophic at dealing with the rest of the media, he'd be just fine.

It was only once in office that the problems really started, as the whole phone hacking caper simply wouldn't go away. Coulson didn't go through developed vetting for obvious reasons, even though all his predecessors and indeed his successors have: they knew he wouldn't have passed. That he thinks he may well have seen top secret material and also sat in on national security meetings just shows the contempt Cameron felt for all the criticism he came in for over his hugging close of Coulson. He felt, just as Blair and Brown did when they sent commiserations to Coulson over his resignation from the Screws, that this phone hacking business was just part of the greater game. No one got hurt, apart from a few celebrities, and who cared about them?

Cameron's continuing loyalty was reciprocated in full. Coulson was "disappointed" with the Sun's coming out in favour of the Tories, as it was more about Labour losing their support than the Tories gaining it. That the paper did it on the day of Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour conference for maximum effect went unmentioned. Indeed, on the whole he felt that the Sun's coverage wasn't obsequious enough, apparently forgetting that on election morning the Sun splashed with a take on the Obama hope poster, claiming Cameron was the country's "only hope". Attempting to make further mischief, Coulson also claimed that a Guardian executive told him "not to write off" the possibility the paper could endorse the Tories, something Alan Rusbridger responded to by tweeting, Coulson fashion, that no one at Kings Road could recall such a conversation.

Remarkably, when he could remember certain details, he often seemed to be mistaken. Coulson complains bitterly in his witness statement (PDF) that following the Matt Driscoll tribunal ruling "it prompted a torrent of publicity in which I was repeatedly branded a bully". Considering that at the time only the Guardian, Independent and Private Eye so much as mentioned the finding of the tribunal, this is just ever so slightly hyperbolic. Likewise, he thought his answer to why there couldn't possibly have been a secret deal between News International and the Conservatives over the BSkyB bid was compelling: why did Vince Cable become business secretary with jurisdiction over approving it when someone else could have been put in place? The obvious answer is that it was part of the deal when the coalition was formed. In any case, if Cable had to be removed from his role over his apparent bias, why wasn't the same process followed over Jeremy Hunt, who had previously said he wanted to act as a cheerleader for the Murdochs? And why is Hunt now still being defended to the hilt when the case against him is far more compelling that it ever was against Cable?

Coulson's evidence was summed up when he said that he was "too busy" to divest himself of the shares he received in News Corporation as part of his severance package. He was working far too hard to be bothered to ensure there was no possible conflict of interest in his role, apparently immersing himself fully in the detail of his job, and yet now he can barely recall much of what was he was doing. He was the very definition of an unreliable witness, but it was precisely this approach that will have delighted Downing Street. How Cameron must be hoping that Rebekah Brooks takes a similar tact tomorrow.

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