Andy Coulson guilty in phone hacking trial: His future may well depend on a level of privacy denied the hacking victims
His insights into the machinations of power make him a potentially valuable consultant if he can operate below the radar
“I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of – and this goes for everyone on the News of the World – in what we do for a living,” said Andy Coulson, protesting his innocence even at the pinnacle of his career as an editor. “The readers are the judges, that’s the most important thing. And I think we should be proud of what we do.”
It was before phone hacking had even entered the popular parlance. The Sunday tabloid had just been named Newspaper of the Year and Coulson – who otherwise shunned media interviews – spoke to trade magazine Press Gazette in April 2005 to respond to carping by rivals about the methods the paper had used to obtain a remarkable succession of scoops.
We know now, of course, that Coulson had much to be ashamed of, back then in 2005 when he was already being touted as the next editor of The Sun. The method the paper used was through the interception of voicemails, a criminal activity which had won the paper much kudos by generating big stories such as the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, having an affair with a married woman.
The jury at the Old Bailey heard that Coulson was told by his chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck that the Blunkett story had been obtained by hacking the Home Secretary’s phone (the paper had 300 hacked messages in its safe) but the editor was happy to run the story in 2004, claiming it was in the public interest. “I regret the decision I made,” he told the court.
Video: The long legal saga
But when his royal editor Clive Goodman was arrested in August 2006, Coulson claimed to be “relaxed” about his own position. He is a determined character who started his career in his teens at the Evening Echo in Basildon and used the Bizarre column at The Sun as his springboard to a position of serious power.
We also know now that he was fully cognizant of the phone-hacking, not only by Goodman and the paper’s contracted private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, but by other members of his staff. But as he handed in his resignation, as Goodman and Mulcaire were jailed in January 2007, he claimed to have been wholly unaware of what they were doing.
The Goodman affair had closely followed a libel action in which Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan had been awarded £200,000 damages from the News of the World. Both episodes did the editor irreparable damage and his newspaper career quickly unravelled.
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It seems incredible now but six months later Coulson was hired as David Cameron’s Director of Communications, tasked with bringing a common touch and “sharper focus” to the Tories. The pair were introduced by NotW political journalist Ian Kirby and bonded over crab cakes at Christopher’s restaurant in Covent Garden. It was thought Coulson could deliver The Sun (edited by his friend Rebekah Wade) to a party vulnerable to being cast as out-of-touch with the working classes.
Alongside Rebekah and his fellow spin doctor Matthew Freud – husband of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth – Coulson sat in a social web of media figures and politicians that became known as The Chipping Norton set, even if he preferred to live in London.
Though the hacking scandal continued to ferment, he projected the demeanour that he had moved on to more important matters.
Video: Brooks' departure from court
His deft handling of the media after the tragic loss of Cameron’s son Ivan early in 2009 greatly impressed the politician and when, months later, the hacking scandal re-emerged with more damaging allegations, the former editor was retained by Tory party HQ in defiance of all calls to let him go. Soon afterwards, he followed Cameron into Downing Street and was soon earning his corn by advising the Prime Minister to cancel a Christmas holiday to Thailand during the recession and drop the use of a “vanity” portrait photographer.
His resignation from Number 10 finally came in January 2011 when the continuing firestorm around hacking was clearly damaging the Prime Minister.
“When the spokesman needs a spokesman it is time to move on,” said Coulson.For the past three years he has lived in limbo, a pariah figure who has been obliged to give up his home in London for a more modest lifestyle in Kent.
Some of his contacts have remained loyal and, while awaiting trial, he was commissioned by GQ magazine – edited by Dylan Jones, a friend of Mr Cameron’s – to author a ten-point master plan for the Conservatives.
It doesn’t mean he has any meaningful future with the party, even if he is set to join a Tory ex-jailbirds’ club that includes Lord Archer and Jonathan Aitken.
Some of his friends believe he is effectively finished and that his rehabilitation must be so long-term that he has no prospects of any meaningful capacity inside the Westminster village. He still awaits trial charged with perjury over evidence he gave in the appeal hearing on the Sheridan case in 2010.
But he is only 46. His insights into the machinations of power – especially at the key intersection of politics and media – make him a potentially valuable consultant if he can operate below the radar in a way that does not damage his clients.
If that’s the route he chooses he must follow the first rule of PR and never again become the story – the spokesman in need of a spokesman. Ironically, given his role in phone hacking, the success of his consultancy will be dependent on his ability to maintain his privacy, something he will have little of as he begins his sentence.
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