Donald Trelford: Without a paper trail, Coulson will survive
Media Studies: Only if Coulson faces criminal charges, or is shown to have lied to MPs, will he lose his job
Monday 13 September 2010
As a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson is familiar with paparazzi, door-stepping and other "dark arts" used by the "red-top assassins" of the tabloid press in hunting their prey. Being on the receiving end must, nonetheless, be an uncomfortable experience. In this space last week Stephen Glover concluded that, on balance, he thought Coulson would survive the campaign to oust him as Downing Street's director of communications, even after the New York Times had tried to throw some logs on his funeral pyre.
Are the odds still in his favour, now that Scotland Yard has said it will examine any new evidence and MPs have referred the case to two committees of the House of Commons? Last week's parliamentary debate was a ludicrous spectacle, an excuse for Labour MPs to spill out anti-Murdoch bile and revenge themselves for the humiliations suffered in the expenses scandal. It was payback time. As Benedict Brogan put it in the Daily Telegraph: "Tories+Murdoch+bugging is one of Labour's favourite conspiracy flavours."
Most of the charges they dredged up were old hat. The period of widespread phone-hacking (not confined to the News of the World) was in the early years of the century and has been dealt with. Two men were jailed, Coulson resigned, the law was changed and the editors' code of conduct amended. The Press Complaints Commission is satisfied that newspapers are now behaving. In any event, as Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor, pointed out, phone-tapping can sometimes serve the public interest if it exposes serious wrongdoing.
Steve Whittamore's "blue book" of dirty tricks, dramatically revealed in yesterday's Independent on Sunday, has been in the hands of Scotland Yard for seven years. The private detective was hired by News International before Coulson became editor. If phone-hacking was so prevalent then, many journalists find it surprising that Coulson didn't know about it, either as editor or, before that, as deputy editor. But he says he didn't and, even if he had his suspicions, he is too shrewd to have left a paper trail that could prove him a liar.
I doubt if the MPs' committees will link him to any criminal activity. The New York Times certainly didn't, apart from the uncorroborated testimony of disgruntled former reporters, most of them anonymous, one from someone who had left the News of the World with drug and alcohol problems. And why did the American paper devote three reporters and 6,000 words to a story in Britain? It was to embarrass Murdoch, with whom they are engaged in a cut-throat survival battle against his revamped Wall Street Journal.
Scotland Yard will need harder evidence than this to bring charges under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The Guardian, the BBC and MPs can drip-feed allegations for ever, but only if Coulson faces criminal charges, or is shown to have lied to MPs, will he lose his job. Making phone-tapping charges stick is difficult. Just because a private detective or reporter has mobile numbers in his notebook, it doesn't prove that any calls were made. Detective agencies do legitimate work for newspapers, so substantial bills from them prove nothing.
Coulson has powerful allies, notably David Cameron and George Osborne, who are determined he should stay. His resignation would be seen as a Labour victory and would also raise questions about their judgement in hiring him. Tellingly, Cameron has said of the Coulson appointment: "I believe in people being given a second chance." In saying this he appears to accept that Coulson had acknowledged error on his own part when he resigned as editor.
Coulson is being compared to Alastair Campbell, but he was a much more successful journalist, winning a string of press awards, and is a much steadier individual. Significantly, the campaign against him is not supported by those big beasts of the Fleet Street jungle, the Daily Mail, the Sun and (of course) the News of the World. Nor, despite the views of its maverick columnist Simon Heffer, has the Telegraph papers joined in the witch-hunt. In yesterday's Sunday Telegraph this was described as "partisan, hypocritical and unjust".
It seems a shame that the News of the World should take such a kicking at a time when it has published a number of important scoops, several of them exposing corruption in sport. "Muck-raking" was the disparaging word used by MPs for this kind of journalism. It is a term the press should be proud of, for – as MPs should know only too well – there's a great deal of muck out there to be raked.
Who's a good villain to succeed Monty?
Editors rarely make successful newspaper managers. It is too early to say if Rebekah Brooks will be an exception. But one who did make the transition was David Montgomery, who left the editorial chairs at the News of the World and Today to become a wealthy tycoon and has now announced his "prepared retirement".
As a relentless cost-cutter, he made few friends at the Mirror or at this newspaper. Alan Watkins described him as "an Ulsterman to whom the adjective 'dour' attached itself like eggs to bacon". But he had a brilliant idea in putting together a collection of small European newspapers in a group called Mecom, then stripping costs to the bone and making profits. Now he has been ousted in the global recession by his investors, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea.
There was a time when the three most unpopular figures in the media were Montgomery, John Birt and Andrew Neil. Birt has retired to the Lords, Neil has softened his image through his television appearances, now Monty is going. So who is left for us to hate? There is always Piers Morgan, I suppose, an emotion now sharpened by professional jealousy at his powerful new job as successor to Larry King.
Donad Trelford was Editor of The Observer, 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University
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