Steve Richards: There's trouble when the spin doctor becomes part of the story

Coulson is the latest figure to be part of the mad interface between press and politics

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It was only a matter of time before Andy Coulson became a news story. Coulson is David Cameron's Director of Communications or chief spin doctor. In Britain spin doctors tend to generate an irrationally intense interest, at least in the media.

The fascination is disproportionate. They are not as powerful as they seem. The elected politicians whom they serve can choose to get rid of them if they wish or ignore their advice. The journalists have the last word in an article or a broadcast and quite often those words are far removed from those that the spin doctor had hoped to read.

More precisely Coulson can offer advice, but it is up to Cameron whether or not to take it. This is why a lot of the obsession with "spin" and spin doctors has been way over the top for years. The BBC in particular became obsessed with Alastair Campbell in a way that bordered on the deranged, long before the row over the death of David Kelly.

But Campbell's authority was dependent on his relationship with an elected politician, Tony Blair. The degree to which Blair needed Campbell, or felt he needed him, is important. But Campbell did not act as a mighty freelance operator. Similarly Cameron, the elected leader, can decide hour by hour, day by day, to follow Coulson's view on what the message should be.

That is my view, but I am in a minority of about three people. Given the mythology associated with the mighty spin doctors the allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, where Coulson was an editor, become a significant political story, and a dangerous one for Cameron.

Coulson is the latest figure to form part of that highly charged and slightly mad interface between politics and the media. To his credit Coulson has managed to operate behind the scenes without attracting much attention until now. He did not seem to want personal publicity. This has changed whether he wants publicity or not. He has been the central part of a lead story and will never be quite so discreetly anonymous in the future. At the very least he is in danger of becoming interesting.

Coulson's success at remaining uninteresting can be measured by this equivalent stage in the mid-1990s when the media had become gripped by Labour's "spin" operation and in Campbell in particular. During Labour's conference in 1996 an entire, tedious Panorama focused on Labour and spin, a few months before the general election.

Throughout the pre-election period more words were written about Campbell than any member of the Shadow Cabinet apart from Gordon Brown. On the whole Campbell fumed against what he regarded, rightly, as a disproportionate focus on his activities. But I suspect in the early years at least those involved in presenting new Labour's case were flattered at the suggestion they were mesmerising titans.

Coulson has a much easier task than Campbell because most newspapers are on the right and the BBC is terrified of appearing anti-Tory. Even so he has managed to combine an effective media operation without everyone talking about its effectiveness. When the media focuses on the presentation it defeats the purpose of the projection. The message gets lost in the fascination with the messenger. Once the media had hailed new Labour for its presentational skills it ceased to be any good at presentation.

In contrast the Tories have managed successfully to convey a modernising progressive tone while feeding some newspapers with more traditional stories about crime and immigration. How have they pulled it off? On the whole their media operation is much calmer and less fraught compared with New Labour's but there will be greater interest from now on in what Coulson does.

Another danger for Cameron is that some members of the Shadow Cabinet loathe Coulson. Here there are precise echoes with some of the internal jealousies in the early New Labour years, although on the whole Labour frontbenchers liked and admired Campbell even if they felt excluded from the media. Several members of Cameron's front bench team feel no such affection towards Coulson. They resent the way they are kept out of appearing on media outlets and being told what to say.

A few of them have been looking at ways of piling the pressure on Cameron to dump him. Now a way has arrived without them lifting a finger. I detect an assertive restlessness in some current Shadow Cabinet members that was never apparent under Blair when nearly all of them were pathetically grateful to be close to power. I spoke to two Shadow Cabinet members yesterday who told me, with a hint of relish, that they thought Cameron would need a replacement by the end of the summer.

I suspect also that some Conservative MPs who feel they were dealt with unfairly over the expenses saga will be watching what happens with interest. Cameron dismissed their pleas that they acted within the rules, insisting that was not good enough. Some feel that the Tory leader acted to protect his close political friends but targeted others. This is a view that will probably be reinforced as he stresses without any qualification his support for Coulson, who might or might not have acted within the rules but is now linked, as they were, to a damaging story.

The fact that Cameron offers his unqualified support suggests that he is wholly confident that no evidence will surface which will condemn Coulson. This is the big difference with the Damian McBride affair. McBride was foolish enough to write an email (we still do not know how others got hold of it, but he was stupid to write it). In McBride's case there was no get-out clause: The proof was in front of everyone's eyes. In the case of Coulson we have no direct evidence of guilt. If that remains the case he will survive, especially in the light of Cameron's endorsement.

But he will do so in a new context in which he is part of a running news story, now that the police and parliamentary committees have announced new investigations. Coulson's appearance in front of one of these committees will be a box office event. This is also a story in which a thousand different agendas spring in to life. It is a media story.

Murdoch haters sense their moment might have come. Alleged victims of the hacking feel vindicated for their wider loathing of the media. They will not keep quiet. Home affairs correspondents will be following the police side of the story. In the end there might not be very much to get worked up about, but the end will be some time coming.

The past activities of a spin doctor should not overwhelm other issues. They will not impact on our lives under a Conservative government and these non-elected figures do not tell us very much about the character of elected leaders beyond their understandable desire to attract a favourable media.

The Conservatives' approach to spending and public services matter much more than the ways in which Coulson seeks to present their policies or what he did at the News of the World. Even so Cameron has a big problem as the following question highlights. Who does he turn to for advice about how to handle the media's sudden interest in his Director of Communications?

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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