Can Andy Coulson survive?
On the face of it this looks like a huge story – the News of the World were hacking thousands of private phones! Newsroom out of control! Tory Director of Communications was at one point editor or deputy editor! Lefty blogs have, predictably and understandably, gone gangbusters on this, with a lot of comparisons being made to Damian McBride. Cameron has been quick to state that Andy Coulson’s job is not at risk over this, which I hope means that there’s no new evidence waiting to come out of the woodwork - one of the lessons of McBride was that it’s better to resile an unsupportable position quickly, rather than have it dragged out of you.
A few further thoughts on what this means though:
1. Labour have been quick to try and make capital out of this, by highlighting Andy Coulson’s role with the NOTW. But they have to be pretty careful here. In their rush to get at Cameron, who I suspect is reasonably well insulated from this row, Labour must try and avoid stomping too heavily on Murdoch and News International. It may already have passed the point of no return as regards media support for Labour, but how many skeletons are rattling in Labour cupboards?
2. In the Guardian coverage they refer to the fact that the litigation between News International and Gordon Taylor settled out of court, and “News Group then persuaded the court to seal the file on Taylor's case to prevent all public access, even though it contained prima facie evidence of criminal activity.” So, the court papers were closed by court order, which means that when they shout that, “Today, the Guardian reveals details of the suppressed evidence,” they are surely acting in direct breach of that court order – or as it is more commonly known, in contempt of court. Surely the headline “Newspaper acts in direct breach of the law!” loses some of its force when the newspaper writing it is also acting in direct breach of the law?
3. Is this really the Tories’ Damian McBride moment? I don’t think so. McBride was writing his scurrilous emails and planning his grubby little site while employed by the Government as a civil servant. Coulson is accused of having been responsible for people who were breaking the law. As Dizzy says, the relationship of an editor to his journalists is not entirely dissimilar to that of a minister and his civil servants. Which would make the proper comparison between Coulson and Gordon Brown, which I doubt is one Labour want made – especially as Coulson resigned.
4. Mike at politicalbetting speculates that the coverage of this may see the Tory share increase. Well, if it does it will certainly provide strong corroboration for the theory that what matters to the Tories is coverage – negative or positive. The implications of that for a General Election campaign are clear, and highly dangerous for Labour.
5. How straightforward is the Guardian’s reporting on this? A lot of play is being given to the “2-3,000” people who have had their phones tapped, and the clear implication is that the NOTW have tapped these phones. But the exact wording is a bit less sweeping. “Officers found evidence of News Group staff using private investigators who hacked into "thousands" of mobile phones.” The wording is a little opaque, but it looks more as though the private investigators hacked thousands of phones, and were sometimes employed by the journalists. The idea that all 3,000 people could launch a class action against News International looks a little far-fetched.
I think the big risk for David Cameron is that this story develops in ways he hasn’t foreseen and that he is eventually compelled to fire Andy Coulson in such a way that he loses credibility from it. The big risk for Labour is that they alienate News International so thoroughly that they find themselves unpleasantly targeted in the way that John Major was. The risk for NOTW? Well, provided no-one actually goes to prison, how much reputational damage can they suffer? It’s not as if they had a lofty reputation for truth and honesty is it?