News International must be hankering after the balmy days of summer 2010.
Back last June they appeared to have successfully weathered the phone hacking story, despite the valiant efforts of The Guardian’s to keep the story alive in 2009.
The Conservatives, strongly supported by News International titles – particularly The Sun – in the lead up to the election were installed in Number 10. Not as a majority government, but with majority control.
Coulson, one of the key figures at News International and close friends with the recently installed Chief Executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, had been appointed Director of Communications at No.10.
Rupert Murdoch may have been quietly confident that News Corporation’s bid to take over the remaining 60.9% of BSkyB would be waved through.
Enter the New York Times
Then, in September 2010, the New York Times investigation was published. ‘Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond’ was the result of three months investigation by three experienced Times journalists, Don Van Natta Jr, Jo Becker and Graham Bowley.
Publication by the New York Times changed the whole tenor of the story. Phone hacking was no longer a UK media story, it was a political story with international implications (due to Murdoch’s ownership of the Wall Street Journal). The NY Times investigation meant the BBC and, to its credit, Sky News could start covering the story without being accused of following The Guardian’s agenda. Labour politicians, now out of office and free to criticise the media, could start to attack Andy Coulson.
Even still, the story ebbed as most other UK papers refused to take it on. Only the Financial Times and The Independent started to report new evidence regularly and prominently.
Nor did the police show any great interest in turning over a story they had rather hoped would go away (given their close relationship with News International and failure both to interview many of those implicated in phone hacking or warn those whose phones had been hacked).
Yet the story refused to die. Thanks to continued digging by The Guardian – especially Nick Davies – and to legal cases taken against the News of the World by individuals who believed their phones had been hacked, news kept seeping out.
Coulson’s unambiguous evidence to the Commons Select Committee in 2010 certainly helped keep it alive. Asked by the Committee if phone hacking went any further than Clive Goodman (the royal correspondent who was jailed for phone hacking) Coulson said that he was “absolutely sure that Goodman’s was a very unfortunate rogue case”. Asked if he knew anything about phone hacking while he was editor of the paper he said he had no knowledge of what was going on.
Had Coulson taken a different approach he may have avoided resignation. He could, for example, have taken the ‘confess and seek mercy’ approach. He could have said that yes, he did know about the hacking and he dreadfully regretted that he was involved. But, given it was rife in the industry he had not fully realised its seriousness. Moreover, when he did realise, he resigned.
This approach would not have burnished his political reputation, might have cut his political career short, and would have led people to question Cameron’s judgment, but it is a position he could have maintained.
Instead, he took the Manuel from Fawlty Towers approach – ‘I know nothing’. This became increasingly untenable as evidence emerged that more and more people under his command were involved.
Then the News of the World suspended Ian Edmondson. Edmondson was assistant editor of news at News of the World. He worked closely with Coulson and then subsequently with the new editor Colin Myler. He was suspended when a series of court documents about the hacking of Sienna Miller’s phone became public that had the name ‘Ian’ written in the top left hand corner.
This was too close. If Edmondson knew about phone hacking then maintaining the line that Coulson was in the dark became much more difficult.
Sure enough, on Friday 21st January, a day after Alan Johnson’s resignation as opposition Chancellor and with Blair being quizzed by the Chilcot Inquiry, Coulson announced his resignation.
Does it end here?
News International are no doubt hoping that their annus horribilis stops here. Now Coulson is on his way out of No. 10 they must hope that the story will lose its political piquancy and slowly dwindle.
Of course the opposite could happen. Coulson’s departure could confirm the belief of those who have been unravelling this story that it goes deep within the political and media classes, and on to the Metropolitan police and the phone companies.
His exit is also unlikely to quell the energy of those fighting court cases to discover if their phones were hacked. These will trundle on, and with them further evidence of how many people at the News of the World were involved.
Then there is the press itself. Though the story has focused on the News of the World we know (from Operation Motorman) that ‘the illegal trade in confidential personal information’ went much further. The Media Standards Trust has previously supported calls for a proper independent inquiry into the whole problem. Now Coulson is gone there may well be more chance of this happening.
For News International, the story is far from over. What it woudn’t give to bring back those lazy hazy crazy days of summer 2010.