Steve Richards: Questions that Coulson must answer

A new police investigation into alleged phone-hacking might clear all those said to be involved. But it is urgently necessary nonetheless
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The Independent Online

Some political sagas are multi-layered in their complexity. Others are straightforward. In the short term at least, the questions that arise from the phone-hacking allegations at the News of the World are obvious. Should there be a fresh police investigation? How much trouble is Andy Coulson in? Are there wider implications for the coalition?

I cannot see why Yates of the Yard has not launched a fresh inquiry already. Evidence has surfaced since the police completed their previous investigation. Or perhaps there was evidence that the police chose to ignore the last time around. Assistant Commissioner John Yates seems to be taking a different approach to this saga compared with the one he adopted during his inquiry into cash for honours in the final of phase of the Blair era, when he could hardly wait to get going.

Yesterday on the Today programme Yates sounded very pious about the need for fresh evidence and why assumptions about phone-hacking should be treated with a degree of scepticism. He stated, perhaps correctly, that the fact that private detectives were hired to look into the affairs of John Prescott did not mean the phone of the former deputy prime minister was hacked. Yates came over as the model of caution.

His cash-for-honours investigation was triggered after a Scottish Nationalist MP sent him a front-page story from the Sunday Times. Yates has always insisted there was much more evidence to justify actions that stood to wreck the lives of Blair and his closest aides, but it was never clear what form it took. The whole enterprise was shaky and expensive, and created a dynamic in which an unelected police officer sought without much cause to take on an elected prime minister.

The contrast with Yates's reticence now is marked. Let us be generous and assume he has learnt from his mistakes from the cash-for-honours investigation. But his prudence should still lead to a further inquiry. Such an investigation might find nothing new and clear all those said to be involved. It is urgently necessary nonetheless.

Former Cabinet ministers claim their phones were hacked. A former News of the World journalist makes fresh assertions in an extensively researched feature for The New York Times, not known for its recklessness. Why the original police investigation was so determinedly narrow in its scope is curious, but is another reason now for the police to prove they can be as robust with their friends in the media as they were with elected politicians.

Yates has something to prove on this front. He became something of a media hero for tormenting Blair. Stories about the investigation appeared on front pages throughout the country. Yates denied speaking to anyone from the Westminster lobby and then admitted to briefing the BBC's political editor, explaining that he did not know such a figure was part of the lobby. This is not a reason to re-visit an investigation into claims of phone-hacking. The additional evidence is the reason, but suspicions about the police's reticence would be addressed by a thoroughness of approach now.

The political question relates to the impact on Cameron and the Coalition of Coulson's involvement as News of the World editor at the time of the alleged phone-hacking. Yesterday I spoke to a government insider who knows Coulson well and is not an unequivocal defender of his role as Cameron's most senior media adviser. He makes two points in Coulson's defence. He says there was a culture across most national newspapers at the time, not a defensible one, in which public figures were fair game. This manifested itself in a variety of ways from going through people's dustbins (Benji the Binman discovering memos from Blair in an aide's dustbin) to the hiring of private detectives and letting them get on with it. He adds that Coulson has been punished already in the sense that he resigned as editor of News of the World.

Both points might well be valid, but they are irrelevant in determining Coulson's fate. That is partly because Coulson has unequivocally denied having any knowledge of activities that were illegal. Obviously, if it is proven that he did have such knowledge, he is finished. Even if such proof, in the form of definitive evidence rather that assertions from employees, does not surface, Coulson is in a desperately awkward position because of the nature of his current job, the weirdest in British politics.

One of his main responsibilities is to advise ministers when they are in trouble with the media. The advice is not based on science but authoritative judgement in relation to the media's unpredictable rhythms. He must have been busy last week as William Hague decided what to do about rumours relating to a now departed special adviser. No doubt Coulson was working around the clock when David Laws announced his resignation. Coulson performs an almost impossible task even when Cameron governs in a relatively gentle media climate.

He is now the big story. How does he advise himself? How can he credibly advise other ministers on their problems with the media when they turn to their TV screens and note that Sky News is leading with the Coulson story? How does he advise Cameron how to deal with the media on any other issue when stories about him are the cause of turbulence?

The job is an art form and part of the artist's aura is dependent on a perception of mastery in relation to the media, a mastery that the media almost welcomes as much as the politicians the artist is supposed to serve. It is a cliché and not always an accurate one that if a spin doctor becomes well known they cease to be effective, although I have admired the way Coulson and others around Cameron have stayed in the background, resisting the spotlight more than some of those who worked for Blair and Gordon Brown. But when the main figure behind the media strategy becomes the centre of such a big storm the artist's spell is broken.

Yesterday, a Downing Street spokesman was speaking on behalf of Coulson, who speaks for the Government – a painful contortion. When one of the best and most reliable political bloggers noted that the spokesman had said Cameron "accepted" Coulson's insistence of innocence, rather than "believed" it, the spokesman was on the phone to the blogger in order to protest. Was Coulson running the operation to protect Coulson?

Coulson's wider problem is that this is a story that will not go away. The allegations surfaced first a year ago. They are back. Yesterday he offered to speak to the police. If it takes place, the meeting will be a big media event. There will be other such moments. Ironically, much will depend on how the media acts, but I would be surprised if Coulson is still in his post by the end of the year.

What of the wider political implications, whether he stays or goes? At the moment they are not very significant. Most voters have not heard of Coulson. But in policy areas this Coalition is taking big risks and behaving as if it won a landslide at the election. In reality, they are revolutionaries in a hung parliament and the Coalition is doomed to be fragile however confidently assertive it seems to be. In such an unstable political context, it becomes more fragile when the pivotal media adviser in No 10 struggles to break free from a major news story.



s.richards@independent.co.uk

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