When The Guardian reported last year on the scale of alleged phone-hacking by the News of the World under then editor Andy Coulson, there was considerable broadcast media coverage, but within 24 hours, it all went fairly quiet. A print media normally keen to fuel any high octane frenzy (recent events concerning the so-called bullying row give a good example of that) decided this one was not really for them.
That may well be because, just as it was always doubtful that the News of the World’s jailed Royal reporter Clive Goodman was alone at the paper in knowing what was going on, so it is doubtful that News International was alone among newspaper groups in hiring private detectives licensed, in the eyes of the press at least, to break the law.
The latest Parliamentary report into the issue confirms suspicions that the phone-hacking practice was more widespread than has been admitted, that knowledge of it went beyond one reporter and one private detective, and that News International have gone to considerable lengths, and cost, to ensure the full story is not exposed to the kind of public gaze they expect for other parts of our national life.
Phrases like ‘collective amnesia … deliberate obfuscation … conceal the truth …’ suggestions that the real scale of the scandal ‘will never be known’ because the silence of key players was ‘effectively bought,’ the view that it is ‘inconceivable’ that Mr Goodman was the lone ‘rogue reporter’ claimed by News, the criticisms of the lack of rigorous inquiry, not just by News but also by the police and the Press Complaints Commission, combine to make the Culture Committee report about as scathing as they come, with serious questions not just for Rupert Murdoch’s executives, but also for the police and the PCC.
But it is Mr Coulson’s role that takes this more directly to the political and electoral arena. He was editor of the News of the World back then, but is communications director for David Cameron now.
Just as Mr Cameron commands considerable press support, so does Mr Coulson, which is why even though the media has recently been dominated by the issue of bullying, there has been scant reference to his role in the record payout for a bullying case, which also happened on his watch and where he was more directly implicated. It is evidence of Mr Cameron’s confidence that the media is basically on his side that he could intervene in the ‘bullying’ debate without any sense of embarrassment that the man writing his scripts was accused by a tribunal of presiding over a culture of bullying which led one former employee of his to be awarded £800,000. When a woman from a helpline makes vague and changing claims of bullying inside Number 10, Mr Cameron calls for an inquiry. Mr Coulson’s bullying, by contrast, he sees as being acceptable enough for him to be his right-hand man.
But despite the blackout on his role in much of the press, it may be that Mr Coulson may yet become a bigger issue than he and much of the media would like. Because his centrality in Mr Cameron’s bid to become Prime Minister is an issue of the Tory leader’s judgement and modus operandi as much as it is an issue of what Mr Coulson did as a newspaper editor.
The Tories are currently struggling to work out why the polls have narrowed. It strikes me as being fairly obvious. For a considerable proportion of Mr Cameron’s leadership, he has escaped serious scrutiny. He continues in many parts of the media to do so. But the public want more from a would be Prime Minister than to be told that it is time for a change and to be told by newspapers that they should vote for him. So they are looking more closely, and they are not as impressed as the papers by what they see. They are ahead of the press in asking tough questions of Mr Cameron, and in seeing through the thin and ever changing policy platform.
I know that Mr Cameron thinks that the Ashcroft funding issue is not being talked about in the pubs and factories, and so is unlikely to damage his campaign. He will probably think the same about Mr Coulson.
But these are exactly the kind of issues that can explode, a bit like the bullying row did, during a campaign, particularly if, as is the case with the Tories, a Party does not have a clear, consistent and thought through policy agenda to promote.
When The Guardian last reported on these issues, the Tories were well ahead in the polls, and within a day the sense out there was that nobody much cared. I reckon they’ll care a bit more now. The election is nearer, the economy is improving a little, the polls are closer and the mood inside Tory HQ is not as cheery as it ought to be for a Party that until recently thought it was home and dry.
* An edited version of this appears in today’s Guardian
*** buy The Blair Years online and raise cash for Labour. http://www.alastaircampbell.org/bookshop.php.