The row over Tory spin doctor Andy Coulson should not be mistaken for one of those long running and complicated arguments that are of interest only to fellow media types.
It has revealed how Rupert Murdoch’s press pressures MPs into silence and the way the police help out the powerful. Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson is now David Cameron’s £140,000 a year communications chief.
He was at the paper when it was using stories supplied by Clive Goodman, a royal reporter, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator.
The two were jailed in January 2007 for tapping the phones of aides to Princes William and Harry. The princes were not the only targets.
Files seized by the police when they raided Mulcaire’s home contained 4,332 names, 2,978 mobile numbers and 91 pin numbers used to access mobile phone voicemail messages.
Mulcaire admitted hacking the messages of several others, including the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, the model Elle Macpherson and Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association.
Also, a private detective hired by a reporter from the News of the World illegally tapped a mobile phone belonging to Tessa Jowell MP at least 28 times. Coulson has repeatedly denied he knew about all this.
Speaking as the editor of a weekly newspaper (even if a rather different one to the News of the World) I would regard myself as extraordinarily incompetent if I did not know the sources of stories that could lead to costly legal action. Yet Coulson, apparently, did not.
You would have thought that MPs might have been concerned to get to the bottom of this. And a parliamentary committee did resolve to question Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International—which owns the News of the World.
Incredibly, however, MPs have admitted they abandoned the effort out of fear that they would be got at by the Murdoch press.
Adam Price, a former Plaid Cymru MP, told Channel 4 News that MPs believed that if they went for Brooks then News International papers “would delve into our personal lives in order to punish [us] and I think that’s part of the reason we didn’t do it”.
Adrian Sanders, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said that its Tory chair, John Whittingdale, issued a warning: “The chairman had made some sort of allusion towards what could happen were we to go down this route.”
Tom Watson, a Labour member of the committee, also claimed that News International had asked officials at 10 Downing Street to persuade him to back off over the affair.
Watson added that he was told that Brooks vowed to destroy him:
“A very senior News International journalist told me at the Labour Party conference in 2006 that his editor would never forgive me for resigning as a minister in Tony Blair’s government and that she would pursue me for the rest of my political career until I was destroyed.”
We know that Murdoch’s papers effectively blackmailed MPs—and that they gave in.
If the press do this to MPs, imagine the treatment that ordinary people get when they transgress what Murdoch believes in.
As for the police, they tried to limit their investigations simply to the tapping of the phones of some members of the royal family, and failed to follow leads implicating Coulson.
Robert Reiner, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics, wrote in the Guardian, “It also seems that in the face of continuing revelations both the previous Labour government, and now the coalition, have been all too ready to accept police assurances that their inquiries have been as thorough as possible.”
News International is now drawing up plans to sponsor an academy school in east London, close to its headquarters in Wapping.
That a school could be handed to an organisation that has contempt for democracy, seeks smears to destroy its opponents and actively promotes criminality tells us everything about the government’s education policy.
Coulson should go, and the media should be taken out of the control of Murdoch and his ilk.