Many thanks to James Macintyre of the New Statesman for failing to shed any light on something I may or may not have said about how long it is possible for someone to survive a media frenzy.
It appears that he spent considerable time trying to track down the original source for the oft-reported ‘rule’, attributed to me, that if a bad situation is dominating the headlines for (*variously reported as) a week, nine days, ten days, eleven days, twelve days, a fortnight or a month*, then the person at the heart of the situation is toast.
It does not appear quite as often as some of my other greatest hits, like ‘we don’t do God’ or ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ (both off the cuff accidents by the way) or even ‘New Labour, New Britain’ (very deliberate) but it has been getting a fair few run-outs recently as a result of headlines continuing to focus on Andy Coulson and phone-hacking, despite several of our largest media organisations willing it away via under-reporting.
So when James contacted me yesterday, after his searches proved fruitless, and asked what exactly did I say and when, I had to confess I could not remember, and it might well be that I never said anything on the subject. If there is anyone out there who remembers otherwise, it would be nice to hear from them.
I suspect if I did say something of this ilk, it would have been in Opposition. Once we were in government, I put the lobby briefings on the record and notes of them will survive somewhere, so James or other intrepid seekers-after-truth would have found any reference had it been from an official briefing. Had it been from a chat with a journalist which led to a story on the subject, the cutting would have survived somewhere, in paper or online form.
So my best guess is that I applied it to a Tory situation when we were in Opposition. But I cannot remember which, if any, it was.
Now I am left asking myself, having been described fairly often as the author of this ‘golder rule,’ what I imagine the rule to be. And the more I think about it, the more I realise there isn’t one. It will depend on the circumstances. Coulson has actually not been dominating the news that much, not least because of the ‘willing away’ strategy referred to above. I can think of situations where ministers and others survived frenzies lasting well beyond a week, or much longer. I can think of others – David Laws would be an example from the coalition – where the denouement came before the frenzy had really even started.
So it will all depend on the facts at the time. If Coulson is telling the truth when he says that he knew nothing of the phonehacking going on at the News of the World, then with the strong backing of the PM, he will survive. If it becomes established, by police or Parliament, that he isn’t telling the truth – and essentially what we have is the word of one or two reporters against his – then in all probability he won’t. But that it not going to be over in a week or a month.
So the rule is that there is no rule and if I once said there was, given there appears to be no record of it, and it has been reported so variably, this new rule replaces that old one, unless and until someone manages to succeed where James has failed, dig up the original source, and we can review the new ‘no rule’ rule in the light of whatever I said in whatever circumstances applied at the time I was laying down the old rule.