Did Andy Coulson know that some of his journalists were involved in illegal telephone hacking when he was editor of the Murdoch-owned News of the World? I would be amazed if he didn't. Such hacking undoubtedly took place while he was its editor. The paper's royal editor, Clive Goodman, was sentenced to four months in prison for intercepting phone messages. Mr Coulson's repeated assertions that he was unaware of such practices are difficult to credit. How could an editor presiding over a relatively small Sunday newspaper operation not know?
Most journalists, I expect, would agree with me. Mr Coulson, who is now David Cameron's director of communications, must surely have been in the picture. But having a strong instinct is not the same thing as being able to prove a case. The Guardian, which has been hammering away at Mr Coulson for many months in the hope of acquiring a valuable Tory scalp, believes that new "revelations" establish Mr Coulson's guilt. I doubt they do.
Set aside fresh suggestions that the News of the World hacked into the phones of John Prescott and Peter Mandelson. The allegations relate to what may have happened more than four years ago, when Mr Coulson was still editor, and don't prove or disprove his complicity. Ignore, too, reports that a News of the World journalist has been recently suspended after being suspected of trying to access the voicemail of a public figure earlier this year. This can have nothing to do with Mr Coulson.
All that we have that is new – and which might concern the Tory communications chief – is a 6,000-word piece in The New York Times over the weekend. The newspaper quotes a former News of the World journalist, Sean Hoare, as saying that he was ordered by Mr Coulson to tap telephones. An unidentified former editorial executive makes a similar accusation.
I would be surprised if this were enough to finish off Mr Coulson. News of the World sources have, rightly or wrongly, undermined Mr Hoare's testimony by saying that the paper sacked him while he was struggling with drug and alcohol problems, thereby suggesting he may have a grievance. Allegations from the other, unnamed source are not going to damage Mr Coulson much until or unless he/she comes out of the shadows.
As things stand, then, Mr Coulson is probably safe. He has the advantage that, apart from The Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer, and to a lesser degree The Independent and Independent on Sunday, newspapers are not particularly interested in this story, for a variety of reasons. (However, the powerful BBC did run enthusiastically with it at the end of last week.) The Murdoch-owned Times does not wish to foul its own nest. Neither the Daily Mail nor The Daily Telegraph yet wants to go to war with Mr Coulson, who is, after all, in the Tory camp, besides being the fount of many useful stories.
But if I were Mr Coulson, or indeed Mr Cameron, I would not sleep entirely easily. That unnamed source would worry me. There could be others. Those who want to defenestrate the director of communications are not only motivated by a desire to injure the Tories, but also by a dislike of Rupert Murdoch, who cannot be disassociated from the phone hacking charges. This partly explains The New York Times' involvement, the paper having a vested interest in discrediting the owner of its successful rival, The Wall Street Journal. The Guardian admitted in a leader on Saturday that Mr Murdoch's excessive power is an issue. It won't give up.
Of course, Mr Coulson might conceivably be as innocent as he says he is, in which case he has nothing to worry about. But if he was aware of telephone hacking, he may be attached to a long fuse that might yet take years to explode. This story may ebb and flow, with The Guardian sometimes making a lot of noise about very little.
If the paper can induce former News of the World executives of unimpeachable character (if any exist) to spill the beans on the record, Mr Coulson will be doomed. If, as seems more likely, it can't, there will be a perpetual stand-off which may be fractious enough to make David Cameron wonder whether he was wise to appoint Andy Coulson in the first place.
Blair's forgotten hacks
Many former journalistic cheerleaders of Tony Blair will have eagerly searched the index of The Journey to find out whether their erstwhile hero has bestowed any praise on them, or even noticed them. Many will have been disappointed. Like most political leaders, Mr Blair is too much of an egotist to acknowledge his old foot soldiers.
How many references does Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Daily Mirror who boasted in his diaries that he was never out of No 10, merit? None. Or Rebekah Wade, editor of the New Labour-supporting Sun from 2003 until 2009? None. Or Max Hastings, a Tory who helpfully placed the London Evening Standard in the Blairite camp? None. I am delighted to report, however, that Peter Stothard, editor of the sometimes fanatically pro-New Labour Times between 1992 and 2002, and the author of a slender hagiography of Mr Blair as war leader, receives one fleeting mention.
Although in the heyday of New Labour these and other journalists believed themselves almost part of the project, they now go unremembered, their sacrifices unrecorded. The former Prime Minister is more interested in erstwhile enemies such as Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail (four references), or the ex-BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan (six). I am reminded of my old friend Stewart Steven, editor of the London Evening Standard during most of the Major years, who used to pop around to No 10 almost weekly to pat the trembling hand of the beleaguered Tory leader. Did John Major mention dear Stewart in his autobiography? Not once.Reuse content