Andy Coulson

The Wisdom of George

Steve Richards of The Independent tweets that we should not be surprised if George Osborne performs a u-turn over the controversial Child Benefit cut for high earners announced at the Tory Party Conference this week. The point Richards makes is that, while in Opposition, Cameron and Osborne quite frequently ‘flip-flopped’, to use the dreadful American parlance, at the first sign of serious media scrutiny of policy. “They are weak” he writes and, for all the tough rhetoric on tackling the deficit, there is more than a grain of truth to the remark.

My sense from the outside is that Osborne will probably stick by the announcement on child benefit, in spite of the rage from certain sections of the press, and try to paper over the cracks by making the sort of vacuous, moralising intervention on marriage that has already been indicated. I may not know a great deal about Osborne’s mindset but experience demonstrates that, given a range of options, instinct normally leads him towards the wrong one.

Perhaps the middle class outrage at the (frankly quite messy) changes to Child Benefit is the start of something faintly encouraging. I don’t mean in the sense that Women’s Institutes the length and breadth of Britain will start to become more politically engaged, but that – finally – there is a flicker of scrutiny of Tory policy from the party’s friends in the right-wing press. This is unlikely to unleash a full-scale examination of the darkness at the heart of the Conservative world view – the Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch propaganda sheets know where their bread is buttered – but the press may yet find it hard to supress their natural instinct to hunt down an individual when they scent weakness. Osborne may have some difficult months ahead of him.

It’s hard to see how Osborne can find himself in a position to pull any rabbits out of the hat. The economic situation is bleak and by any measure he was a strange choice for Chancellor given the options available to David Cameron when the Coalition was formed. Both Vince Cable and Kenneth Clarke were clearly better qualified for the job and there can be little doubt that Osborne holds his position (arguably the first ‘proper’ job of his life) purely as a result of the personal loyalty of the Prime Minister. Such loyalty is worth a great deal of course, as the continual, bewildering survival of Andy Coulson demonstrates, but is it really doing anyone any favours?

The coming months will test the Coalition to breaking point. The government will inevitably become increasingly unpopular as the cuts start to bite, and much pressure will fall on the Liberal Democrat involvement, depending on next year’s elections and the outcome of the AV Referendum. Crucial at such times is the work and vision of the Treasury, as the fulcrum of the business of government. The biggest worry for the Coalition must be that so much therefore depends on the wisdom – or otherwise – of George Osborne.

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So, is Andy Coulson off the hook?

Just a matter of days ago there seemed to be no way for Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, to save his job. The growing clamour and drip-feed of testimony to his involvement in the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal was, a very short time ago, threatening to suck the life out of his Downing Street career.

Yet here we are, 21 days after the New York Times re-launched the story, and still Coulson shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

The story itself is a fairly unpleasant and unsettling one. The essence of it is that, during Coulson’s time at the News Of The World, the paper’s journalists (allegedly) frequently and systematically hacked into the voicemail accounts of a large number of celebrities and public figures in pursuit of a scoop. Many of these figures have launched legal actions against the NOTW and, in some cases, the Metropolitan Police for their apparent lack of concern in informing those whose phones may have been hacked. (Coulson denies any wrongdoing, or indeed knowledge, of any illegal practices which may have taken place during his period as editor, although he did resign in 2007 following the jailing of his Royal Correspondent, Clive Goodman.) It is further alleged that strong links between the NOTW and the Met have led to a less than thorough investigation into these allegations. Much of the background to this story can be found on The Guardian website.

The Guardian does rather seem to be ploughing a lone furrow on this story, although there has been a certain degree of follow-up from The Independent and the broadcast media. Beyond that, there are large chunks of the print media who simply haven’t gone anywhere near this story.

And why would that be, you might ask yourself? Is it because this alleged large-scale criminal activity is a complete non-story? Unlikely, I would suggest. If there was the merest suggestion that the BBC had been up to these tricks the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and the entire Murdoch stable would have been all over this story like a rash – and rightly so.

Is it because the right-wing press don’t want to rock the boat for their new friends in Downing Street? Possibly, and Coulson’s personal relationships with individual journalists may well have played some part in the dampening down of the story. But I still believe (perhaps naively) that most journalists know when they have to put personal and professional links aside in pursuit of the truth – unless of course, their very jobs are at stake due to pressure from above.

And this raises the other possibility: if phone-hacking really was rife at the News Of The World, how much of a leap of faith would it be to assume that it is common in other sections of what we used to call Fleet Street? Could certain newspapers simply be following the biblical directive to ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’?

Maybe new life will be breathed into this story when the various victims’ legal challenges approach their conclusions. It may even turn out that nothing can be pinned on Coulson from his time at the News Of The World. But this whole episode currently reveals the lack of will for the truth from large sections of the media, and invites one to draw the very worst conclusions about the motives behind this failure.

William Hague – why should anyone give a monkey’s?

The stream of speculation, inference and behind-the-hand sniggering about William Hague’s personal life shows no sign of abating any time soon. His Special Adviser, Chris Myers, has bowed to the pressure and resigned, and certain sections of the press seem intent on keeping the ‘news’ cycle rumbling for as long as is humanly possible.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not in the least bit interested in the bedroom arrangements of the Foreign Secretary. The Cold War is over, and the threat of blackmail is not the national security issue it was back in the time of the Profumo Affair. Perhaps you wouldn’t believe it if you persist in reading some of Britain’s more questionable newspapers, but we do actually live in the 21st Century now, and it shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference whether someone is gay, straight or undecided. Hague has denied the rumours and, in a move which seems regrettable in the extreme, felt forced to reveal details of his wife’s recent miscarriage to demonstrate to the world that he isn’t a ‘non-playing captain’.

I’m not William Hague’s biggest fan. Perhaps it was his precocious appearance at the 1977 Tory conference when he was a mere boy, but to me he will always be a whiny little Thatcherite who went on to become one of the least effective Opposition Leaders this country has ever had, while actively encouraging the malign influence of Michael Ashcroft on the British electoral system. Having said that, the man deserves a private life.

Some (although certainly not all) British newspapers have a dubious reputation both at home and abroad when it comes to this kind of thing. The practices of self-regulated tabloid newspapers have long left a lingering bad smell across public life in this country, and are often coupled with the unspoken hypocrisy that the media rarely turns its gaze inwards. Perhaps that’s part of the hidden agenda with all this nonsense about William Hague. At the same time that this ‘story’ continues to do the rounds, it seems that only The Guardian has found the time or the inclination to scrutinise David Cameron’s combative Director of Communications, Andy Coulson.

Coulson, a former editor of the News Of The World, continues to be implicated in the disgraceful bullying and phone-tapping practices which occurred under his leadership but the media seems strangely reluctant to tell the story and, at the same time, ask whether he is a fit and proper person to be heading the Number Ten communications operation. It strikes me that Andy Coulson’s working practices are of direct relevance to his work on the government payroll, and that this is a story that needs to be told. Hague’s sleeping arrangements, on the other hand, would appear to bear no relation to policy decisions on Europe, the Middle East or the continuing involvement of British troops in Afghanistan.

While speculation about Hague’s future is fostered in certain quarters, Coulson continues to set the government’s news agenda, largely untouched by a seemingly passive media who don’t see any problem. The Hague and Coulson scenarios both have one thing in common – both men should be judged on their professional actions alone. Something tells me that’s probably too much to expect.

A pleasure watching you work, Alastair

It’s just possible that Alastair Campbell has become the first, and scariest Ghost of New Labour Past – the one who’ll cause panic among government ranks with his every media intervention. This week’s Question Time debacle is evidence of a man, newly re-converted to the opposition mindset, flying quickly out of the traps while the new boys and girls in government show no small amount of clumsiness as they learn the ropes.

Campbell, of course, is the consummate political media operator, feared, immitated and gloriously immortalised as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It. Love him or hate him, his political instincts have generally proven to be second to none (with the possible exception of New Labour’s Prince of the Dark Arts, Peter Mandelson).

Yes, I’m aware of the nature of many of the things his government did while he was part of the inner-circle at the top of the Labour government. I’m aware of his role in the build-up to the senseless Iraq war and his less than glorious efforts to dismantle the BBC over David Kelly and the revolting Andrew Gilligan. And I know how his style of media misdirection while he was Tony Blair’s Press Secretary did so much to undermine trust in the political arena.

But the thing is, when he’s not doing all those things it’s still a genuine pleasure to watch him at work. His gentle invitation to Adam Boulton to lose his rag hilariously on live television (greedily accepted) was as beautiful a demonstration of the art of the wind-up merchant as you’re ever likely to see, and now his very presence on a show as instantly forgettable as the BBC’s Question Time has caused the new government to look precious and slightly paranoid within its first few weeks.

Of course, he couldn’t have known that the government were going to be so foolish about the whole thing, but there’s no doubt he grabbed the moment when it arrived, accusing the government of “a pathetic attempt to bully the BBC”. That the Grand Old Master Of Spin managed to throw this jibe in with few questioning his own history of doing exactly the same shows the skill of the man, and highlights the contrast between himself and Andy Coulson, the government’s significantly less sophisticated answer to Campbell.

Coulson is your basic tabloid bully and the disgraceful odour of phone-tapping and petulance hang around him from his days as editor of the News Of The World. Sure, being a government Press Officer is an inevitably mucky business, but this week has demonstrated the wisdom of the old hand as opposed to the misplaced arrogance of the new.

While I may not be a fan of Alastair Campbell’s time spent defending the indefensible at Downing Street, when the comparison is drawn with the current incumbent it’s a pleasure to watch a true professional at work.

The nasty odours that continue to rise from the Tory ‘project’

In the midst of all the allegations of bullying emanating from Downing Street at the moment (personally I’d be surprised if any incumbent of Number Ten never lost their cool) there continues to be precious little scrutiny of the Conservatives’ relationship with Andy Coulson, former News Of The World editor and David Cameron’s Communications Director. Of course, no one should be remotely surprised about this given the media’s ongoing failure to ask any searching questions of the Conservatives, despite their continuing position as bookies’ favourites to form the next government.

Nevertheless one might expect a bit more interest from newspapers and broadcasters around the murky recent past of the Tories’ answer to Alastair Campbell. I know that the vast bulk of the print media is in the Tories’ pocket, that the BBC is too scared of an incoming Cameron government to rock the boat, that ITV News are more interested in their continuing evolution into a free-to-air version of the Daily Mail, and that hardly anyone watches Sky News anyway, but aren’t we entitled to expect that front page coverage of real bullying allegations (linked to actual law-breaking) should extend beyond The Guardian?

Coulson’s difficulties (see the Guardian coverage here) don’t represent the only unpleasant odours seeping out of the Cameron Project at the moment. An egregious record on expenses (moats, duck houses and Anthony Steen) sits all too comfortably with Gideon’s social-climbing and squalid grasping on Deripaska’s yacht, not to mention the non-dom status of Zac Goldsmith and the endless unanswered questions about Lord Michael Ashcroft.

Add all of that to their continuing incompetence in the arena of economic policy and the absence of any constructive ideas on crime, unemployment, meaningful political reform, foreign policy and a whole host of other areas and you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps a little scrutiny wouldn’t go amiss. Don’t hold your breath though – even if you do smell the odd rat.