Alan Watkins: An editor knows what his reporters are doing. And a would-be PM should know about his staff

David Cameron's choice of Andy Coulson as his press secretary shows a lack of judgement all round
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It is many years since I dealt with political press officers, or press officials of any kind, in the normal course of business. Even in those days, when Labour was in opposition, we tended to give one another a wide berth. Mr Alastair Campbell was still with the Daily Mirror, where he tended to devote more time to the interests of the Labour Party, and, in particular, of its then leader than I considered to be wholly appropriate.

The other members of Neil Kinnock's press team were Ms Patricia Hewitt, with whom I had to do as little as possible, and Mr Charles Clarke, alongside whom I would occasionally sit in the press gallery. Mr Clarke's rough manner and acerbic tongue made his choice of profession, even if it was only brief, seem distinctly odd. I remember him denouncing me in the strongest terms for recommending the re-nationalisation of water.

Then there was Mr Peter Mandelson, as he was in those days. There was always Mr Mandelson. In the late afternoon or early evening on a Thursday he would glide round the Westminster bars as if he were equipped with castors, not feet, searching for sympathetic correspondents from the Sunday papers.

It was, in its way, a more innocent age. Even so, Sir Bernard Ingham, then still unknighted, was already a power in the land beside Margaret Thatcher. But the stream of spin was to burst its banks and turn itself into a swelling torrent. If I were to choose a moment it would be during the Conservative conference of 1993. John Major made a speech recommending a return to old standards in reading, writing, arithmetic, that sort of thing. It was Sir John himself who decided to summarise the speech as "back to basics".

At that time there had been various sexual irregularities in the home lives of a few Tory politicians, though nothing about which to become over-excited. The young man who was being employed to offer "guidance" to the press was asked: did the Prime Minister have such irregularities in mind? Yes indeed, the spokesman replied. And so was born the entire "back to basics" campaign, which did the Tories much damage up to the 1997 election and beyond.

Much of the success of Labour from 1994 to, I suppose, 2003 (though the dates vary) was put down to the brilliance of its press campaign. I cling obstinately to the view that the history of the past 12 years would have been different if the Conservatives had possessed the sense to choose Mr Kenneth Clarke as their leader at one of the several opportunities they were offered.

With a new leader in Mr David Cameron came a new press officer in the form of Mr Andy Coulson. He hailed from the rough end of the trade, having been editor of the News of the World. He resigned his position before his royal correspondent was found guilty of misusing information from mobile telephones about the Royal Family, and maybe about others as well.

It now turns out, from information provided by The Guardian, that other journalists on the same Sunday paper were digging away like moles, resting neither by night nor by day. Journalists were similarly engaged in other

papers. It was a wonder that anything appeared in the paper at all, so busy were they in listening to other people's conversations.

There is at least one puzzling feature. Why was Mr Coulson given this particular new job in the first place? Mr Cameron told us last week that he believed in giving people a second chance. But it is surely not the function of the Leader of the Opposition to provide a rehabilitation centre for the morally infirm. Mr Cameron must have known what Mr Coulson's failings were when he appointed him.

The story went out – and it was repeated last week – that Mr Coulson "did not know" what his subordinates were getting up to. It defies belief that he did not know. In any case, he ought to have known and in any event he carries the responsibility. That is the nature of the editor's job. He or she is the person who goes to jail.

Accordingly, Mr Cameron and Mr Coulson had placed themselves in a false position from the very beginning. With the greatest respect to The Guardian's industry and persistence, we knew about Mr Coulson's failings. And we know about Mr Cameron's too. We know about his somewhat unsatisfactory period of service with Carlton Communications.

We should not neglect Mr Rupert Murdoch. It would be a great feat, as Mr Campbell said, not long before the 1997 election, if we could get The Sun on our side. As a matter of fact, he mentioned the Daily Mail as well. At that stage, the dream seemed impossible. Then it was fulfilled. Some time later, the Mail detached itself, but Mr Murdoch remained loyal, first to Mr Tony Blair and then to Mr Gordon Brown.

Only recently have there been signs of a change of course by the good ship Murdoch. Hitherto, his minions had sent out signals to the effect that, while the great proprietor considered the Conservative leader to be a perfectly nice chap, he was not really up to leading the country in these troubled times. Now the signals may be changing.

The myth of the Labour-hating Tory press has now been maintained for 12 years. It is even longer if we add the five-year period of Conservative government beginning with our exclusion from the European monetary system and ending with the 1997 election. So the time span is nearer 17 years.

Throughout these periods, however, the Conservatives felt themselves to be at a disadvantage. Nobody liked them – but, in contrast to the followers of Millwall Football Club, they did care, very much so. There was a brief silver age under John Major in 1990-92 in celebration of relief after Mrs Thatcher, but afterwards there was more or less unremitting hostility.

Mr Cameron presumably has no need to spoil a smooth ride by jettisoning his fellow traveller. It is said that Mr Coulson has made the journey easier by throwing out of the vehicle various elderly or infirm passengers who had offended the expenses police – or lynch law, as it seems more accurate to call it. However, it does not, or should not, befall the press officer to say who stays or goes as an MP.

I have no idea what the relations may be between Mr Murdoch and Mr Coulson or between Mr Coulson and various other members of Mr Murdoch's dominions.

I would, however, guess that many of these subjects enjoy close relations with one another. Mr Cameron would want to have the support of Mr Murdoch's papers, as Mr Blair had all those years ago and still has, up to a point, to this day.