10 July 2011

Cameron, Coulson, and Caesar's Wife

Carl Bernstein's Newsweek article yesterday, 'Murdoch's Watergate', does a good job of showing just how the current phone-hacking scandal could keep rippling, with effects far more potent that the closure of a newspaper that's been in commercial decline for years. His summary's pretty useful:
'The facts of the case are astonishing in their scope. Thousands of private phone messages hacked, presumably by people affiliated with the Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper, with the violated parties ranging from Prince William and actor Hugh Grant to murder victims and families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrest of Andy Coulson, former press chief to Prime Minister David Cameron, for his role in the scandal during his tenure as the paper’s editor. The arrest (for the second time) of Clive Goodman, the paper’s former royals editor. The shocking July 7 announcement that the paper would cease publication three days later, putting hundreds of employees out of work. Murdoch’s bid to acquire full control of cable-news company BSkyB placed in jeopardy. Allegations of bribery, wiretapping, and other forms of lawbreaking—not to mention the charge that emails were deleted by the millions in order to thwart Scotland Yard’s investigation.

All of this surrounding a man and a media empire with no serious rivals for political influence in Britain—especially, but not exclusively, among the conservative Tories who currently run the country.'
I've been trying to get my head around the whole News International web of scandal, with particular reference to the question of David Cameron's folly in hiring Andy Coulson back in the day, and in particular in keeping him on as the evidence and the allegations against him mounted up. So, in an attempt at pulling together what seem to be the salient facts in connection with Coulson alone, rather than Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch, and others, and in full awareness that much of this must be speculative, I'm going to get this straight for my own sake. There are timelines out there, but they're a bit skeletal for my liking. I want to put more flesh on those bones.


In January 2007, following an investigation begun in response to a December 2005 request from Buckingham Palace that the police investigate interference with mobile phone messages,  Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for their phone hacking activities on behalf of the News of the World. The same day it was announced that Andy Coulson had resigned as News of the World editor, though Coulson maintained that he had been unaware of Goodman and Mulcaire's illegal activities. His resignation meant that the Press Complaints Commission no longer needed to investigate the Goodman affair and thereby ensured that Rupert Murdoch would not have to face questions about what had happened.

In July 2007, on the advice of George Osborne, David Cameron appointed Coulson as the Conservative Party's director of communications. Cameron had until this point kept his distance from the News International mob, but Osborne had been building connections among them, and, apparently having headhunted Coulson, persuaded Cameron that wrongdoing on Coulson's watch shouldn't be held against him.

In December 2008, Stratford Employment Tribunal found that Coulson had presided over a culture of bullying at the News of the World, and upheld sports writer Matt Driscoll's claim for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. In particular, the tribunal found that bullying behaviour on the part of Coulson personally led to stress-related depression among staff. Other editors who had worked under Coulson were found to have emulated him in bullying staff and had lied to the tribunal. The News of the World was later directed to pay Driscoll £800,000 as compensation for unfair dismissal.

In July 2009 a host of new revelations were published in the Guardian about phone-hacking during Coulson's News of the World tenure, notably pointing to out-of-court settlements -- signed off at the highest level of News International -- with prominent individuals, to evidence that phone-hacking was far more widespread than hitherto believed and indeed was, in effect, routine on the paper. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott publicly called on Cameron to dismiss Coulson, but a spokesman for Cameron said that he was 'very relaxed about the story'. Prescott wrote to Cameron about the matter, pointing out that the Conservative MP in charge of Parliament's culture, media, and sport select committee said that the Guardian's allegations raised very serious concerns and that the committee would probably call on Coulson to give evidence. He concluded his letter:
'You now appear to be the only person satisfied with Coulson's role while every other relevant authority is investigating the claims. In light of this, will you ensure that Coulson fully co-operates with the select committee and, if called, attends to give evidence. Finally, I must say that I feel your "very relaxed" attitude to these allegations seriously calls your judgment into question. If they are true, Coulson is not fit to enter government as your director of communications if you are elected or, indeed, remain in his current post. I look forward to your prompt reply as a matter of urgency.'
David Cameron did not reply, dismissing as a 'political stunt' a demand from former Home Secretary Charles Clarke that Coulson should answer questions about the Guardian's allegations. The Metropolitan Police refused to investigate the Guardian's claims, saying that in its opinion 'no new evidence had come to light'.

News International issued an official statement saying that it had conducted a thorough investigation into the phone-hacking allegations, and there was not and never had been evidence to support allegations that News of the World journalists had directly oe indirectly engaged in phone-hacking, or that there had been systemic corporate illegality by News International with the intention of suppressing evidence. Called before the Commons committee later that month, Coulson insisted that he had never condoned phone-hacking, and didn't recall any incidents where phone hacking took place.

In February 2010, the Parliamentary select committee publicly accused News of the World of engaging in phone-hacking on an 'industrial scale', criticising News of the World executives and editorial staff for their 'collective amnesia' and 'deliberate obfuscation' and criticising the police for the limited scope of their original investigation. It seems pretty clear that Coulson was one of those they had in mind, and yet Cameron kept to his Tammy Wynette strategy. The government welcomed the report, and said it would consider what action it should take, with Gordon Brown's Downing Street office stating, 'The scale of this is absolutely breathtaking and an extreme cause for concern.' The Sun responded to the committee's report by scorning its findings and characterising it as having wasted its time on unsubstantiated claims by 'the Labour-supporting Guardian'.

Given that a general election campaign was beginning, the Guardian contacted the leaders of all three main political parties later that month to inform them about a matter on which the Guardian was unable to report due to ongoing legal proceedings. In a phonecall to Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy, the Guardian said that a private detective named Jonathan Rees was awaiting trial for a murder, and that he had in the past been involved in illegal activities on behalf of the News of the World; after serving seven years in prison for conspiring to frame a woman by placing cocaine in her car, he had been rehired by Coulson. The Guardian made it very clear that Coulson must have been aware of Rees' corrupt activities, and understands that Edward Llewellyn, now No. 10 Chief of Staff, was informed of this.

In April 2010, Crown Prosecution documents became public showing that although the police had named in court only 8 individuals whose phones they believed had been hacked, Scotland Yard were in fact in possession of 4332 names or partial names of individuals who might have had their phones hacked by News of the World journalists or investigators in their pay during Coulson's tenure; the police had deliberately ringfenced the evidence in order to suppress the names of prominent individuals. That same month it was revealed that Andy Hayman, the officer who had headed the original Scotland Yard investigation, had left the police and now worked for News International, writing a column for the News of the World. Still in the pay of News International, he continues to write for the Times.

In May 2010, following a general election, David Cameron's Conservative Party forged an alliance with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats in order to form a coalition government. David Cameron replaced Gordon Brown as Prime Minister and appointed Andy Coulson as Director of Communications at Downing Street, on a salary of £140,000, and with access to the highest level of top secret material. Cameron did this despite the advice of Lord Ashdown:
'I warned No 10 within days of the election that they would suffer terrible damage if they did not get rid of Coulson, when these things came out, as it was inevitable they would.'
Nick Clegg had also expressed concerns to Cameron, who rebuffed them, insisting Coulson was entitled to a second chance.

In September 2010, the New York Times reported that colleagues of Coulson said that, contrary to his claims of ignorance, he had indeed been present during discussions about phone-hacking, with one saying that he had directly ordered reporters to engage in phone-hacking.

In October 2010, a former colleague of Coulson's revealed on Channel 4's Dispatches that Coulson had made a point of listening to illegally-obtained voice messages. An assiduous editor who wouldn't run stories unless he was sure they were correct, he apparently made sure to listen to messages or at least read their transcripts himself. The same programme also featured a Plaid Cymru MP saying that the Parliamentary committee that investigated the hacking affair had been threatened by News International:
'I was told by a senior Conservative member of the committee, who I knew was in direct contact with executives at News International that if we went for her [the News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks] they would go for us – effectively that they would delve into our personal lives in order to punish them.'
The Conservative MP in question denies this, but then, he would, wouldn't he?

In December 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service said that the evidence presented against Coulson fell short of what would have been necessary to proceed with a case against him. Witnesses had withdrawn allegations and been unwilling to support previous claims when interviewed by Scotland Yard  under criminal caution, such that they themselves could have faced charges if they admitted their own knowledge of or involvement in phone-hacking. That same month, Coulson gave evidence in a perjury trial in Glasgow, in which he said, under oath, that he had never instructed anyone to do anything untoward.

The constant drip of allegations continued, and despite Cameron and Osborne's determination to protect him, Coulson tendered his resignation in January 2011, saying:
'Unfortunately, continued coverage of events connected to my old job at the News of the World has made it difficult for me to give the 110% needed in this role. I stand by what I've said about those events but when the spokesman needs a spokesman it's time to move on.'
In the aftermath of the resignation, Osborne, who had described Coulson as 'an incredibly talented, dedicated and patriotic servant of this country' referred to him as a 'good friend', and Cameron lamented the fact that -- as he saw it -- Coulson was 'being punished twice for the same offence,' maintaining that Coulson 'had resigned as News of the World editor as soon as he found what was happening'.

In April 2011, Neville Thurlbeck, the News of the World's chief reporter, and Ian Edmondson, its former news editor, were arrested on suspicion of phone-hacking; they have been bailed, and are to face charges in September. News International issued an apology to a handful of phone-hacking victims, accepting responsibility for the News of the World's crimes under Coulson's editorship and admitting that previous internal investigations had been inadequate. A third journalist, James Weatherup, was arrested just under a week later. Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, challenged the evidence given to Parliament by John Yates, the acting Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who had refused to investigate the Guardian's July 2009 claims. Starmer said that the evidence shows that the police had of their own accord chosen to limit the scope of the original inquiry, and had not done so under direction from prosecutors.

In June 2011 the trial of Levi Bellfeld for the 2002 murder of Milly Dowler came to an end with Bellfeld being found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. A few days later, in July 2011, the Guardian reported that police working on the News of the World phone-hacking case had found evidence of the targeting of the Dowlers by the News of the World in the aftermath of their daughter's abduction. That's why the story exploded when it did -- it has nothing to do with Jeremy Hunt's BSkyB decision, and everything to do with the Dowler investigation having come to an end.

The rest of the story is pretty clear, at least in terms of Coulson, who was -- along with another journalist -- arrested the other day, apparently on suspicion of bribing police officers, and has been bailed till October. David Cameron, as ever, has insisted that even though it didn't work out, he feels he had been right to offer Coulson 'a second chance'. And, it would appear, to have kept him on as long as he did, and to call him a friend even now, despite...
  • An employment tribunal in 2008 having found Coulson guilty of bullying and awarding £800,000 compensation to his victim. 
  • John Prescott in July 2009 having advised David Cameron to dismiss Coulson from his position in the Conservative Party, saying he was a wholly unsuitable person for such an important role. 
  • A Commons committee in February 2010 having criticised News International executives and editors -- including Andy Coulson -- for deliberately obstructing their investigation, and having described as completely unbelievable the claim that the likes of him had been unaware of the illegality in which his paper was indulging. 
  • The Guardian later in February 2010 having given Cameron evidence of how Coulson as News of the World editor had employed a convicted criminal known to have had a history of dealings with corrupt police. 
  • It becoming quite apparent in April 2010 that the original police investigation into Coulson's News of the World had been determinedly and woefully inadequate, hardly scratching the surface of what had gone on there. 
  • Paddy Ashdown and Nick Clegg having both personally advised Cameron in May 2010 not to allow a man with such a whiff of brimstone into the highest levels of British government. 
  • Former colleagues of Coulson claiming in September and October 2010 that he had been fully aware of News of the World phone-hacking, and had even directed people to engage in the practice.
  • An ever-swelling stream of allegations about Coulson and the paper he ran over the following months, most easily understood by looking at Nick Davies' Twitter feed... 
And still David Cameron kept him on at the highest practical level of British government. After all, he felt Andy Coulson was entitled to a second chance. Because apparently in this Downing Street, as too often before, Caesar's wife need not be above suspicion.

No comments: