The Coulson affair has reinforced some of the more damaging misgivings about David Cameron’s leadership

Andy Coulson was an excellent media manager, but he did not deserve such loyalty

It is inconceivable that David Cameron was ever looking forward to the two-day European Union summit. Likely to seal the defeat of his campaign to have anyone-but-Juncker nominated as President of the European Commission, this was always going to be a meeting to be got through with as little indignity as possible. Margaret Thatcher might have relished the fight for its own sake; Cameron does not seem made of the same combative stuff.

But what a difference a couple of days makes. After the pounding he has received since Tuesday, the Prime Minister could be forgiven for viewing his Belgian mini-break as light relief. The conviction of Andy Coulson for conspiracy to hack phones marks one of Cameron’s lowest points at No 10. And it is probably not over. His former communications chief awaits sentencing and may yet face another trial on the two charges where the jury failed to agree. There could be considerable mileage in this scandal yet.

In some ways, you could argue – and I would – that Cameron has been unfairly maligned over Coulson. First, he has been blamed for his loyalty, and specifically for keeping him on when he became Prime Minister, despite many warnings about the skeletons that lay in the Coulson cupboard. But loyalty in my book is a virtue rather than a vice – we saw it again, to similarly detrimental effect, when Cameron stood by both Andrew Mitchell and Maria Miller for longer than was politically advisable.

In the case of Coulson, less noble reasons than loyalty have been cited – chief among them Cameron’s desire to square the tabloids and ingratiate himself with the Murdoch press. This may indeed have figured in his calculation. But what the Prime Minister’s critics have universally failed to mention, since Coulson’s departure, is another reason why Cameron surely wanted to keep him: he was exceptionally good at his job. How very good he was can be seen from the obstacles that Cameron has had to swerve to avoid since Coulson left. Accomplished media managers able to cope with the top level of politics are very hard to come by.

Even less warranted was the criticism of Cameron by the trial judge. The Prime Minister was said to have endangered the outcome by issuing his apology for appointing Coulson before the jury had pronounced on all the charges. From the judicial point of view, of course, the reprimand was correct. Just imagine, though, if Cameron had delayed – even an hour – with the apology he had promised in the event of Coulson’s conviction. His critics in the Labour opposition and the media would have been all over the airwaves and social media accusing him of prevarication, of breaking his promise, of still trying to apologise for Coulson. From the political point of view, Cameron was right.

 

You cannot blame Ed Miliband for making the most of the Prime Minister’s discomfort. The Labour leader has had precious few moments of glory in recent months, and he can claim to have led the charge against the Murdoch empire and phone-hacking when the scandal first broke. His demolition job at Prime Minister’s Questions was both serious and effective.

But the reason why it was so effective – and why the damage from the Coulson affair may endure – is that it simultaneously reinforces several widely shared misgivings about Cameron. One of these would be the wisdom of his appointments and the narrowness of his social circle. Another – not unrelated – would be his propensity for misguided loyalty. And a third, which he inherited from Tony Blair, would be an exaggerated concern with the power of Rupert Murdoch and the British popular press. The reach of television and the proliferation of social media seem to have done little to attenuate this.

As with Bill Clinton and his womanising, as with George W Bush and his short attention span, so with other politicians, including David Cameron. It is not necessarily the mistakes they actually make that damage them, but the mistakes voters believe they are capable of making on the basis of past performance. This is why the Coulson affair will cast its shadow over Cameron’s premiership at least until the next election, even if, as is possible, the man himself is languishing behind bars. 

 

The rest of the media have let down the Al Jazeera three

All right, so I’m as much to blame as anyone. But I don’t think that Peter Greste, the Australian former BBC correspondent, and his colleagues from Al Jazeera have been particularly well served by their fellow journalists, or by their governments.

Earlier this week a court in Cairo sentenced Greste to seven years in prison. The channel’s Cairo bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian of Egyptian origin, and an Egyptian producer, Baher Mohamed, received similar sentences.

Their crime, according to the court, was “spreading false news”; no evidence was produced. There had been hopes that a formula, such as time served, would allow them to be released and the Egyptian judges to save face. It was not to be. Television pictures showed Greste banging on his courtroom cage in defiance.

Throughout their ordeal – or, to be pessimistic, their ordeal so far – it has seemed to me that the reporting, where there has been reporting, has erred on the side of caution. The most honourable explanation would be that the journalists’ home governments and colleagues in the media felt that too much of a fuss might harm their cause by painting the Egyptian authorities into a corner. That now looks like a misjudgement.

But was fear of making things worse the whole reason for the reticence? There has seemed to me something a little mealy-mouthed about some of the reporting, as though we were hedging our bets, thinking “no smoke without fire” and not wanting to speak too ill of the authorities in Cairo. Would it have been different, I wonder, if the three had been employed not by the Qatar-based channel, Al Jazeera but for, say, the BBC – for whom, in fact, Greste once worked?   

In a statement issued through his brothers yesterday, Greste said he was “devastated and outraged”, pledged to fight to get the conviction overturned, and described the trial as “an attempt to use the courts to intimidate and silence critical voices in the media”. If he has the courage to speak out, so should we.

 

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