What was most extraordinary about David Cameron’s decision to hire the former News of the World (NoW) editor Andy Coulson, now convicted of conspiring to hack phones, was that a man who had spent seven years as a PR for Carlton Communications broke the first rule of successful spin-doctoring: the spin doctor must not become the story. Coulson’s “assurances” about his role (or non-role) in hacking phones were beside the point. Cameron ought to have understood that, in any further allegations about what had happened at the NoW, his opponents would make Coulson the story. Indeed, as the hacking story unfolded, the possibility that Coulson was implicated gave it an extra significance, making it bigger news than it would otherwise have been.
Most of the spin doctors you’ve heard of – Alastair Campbell, Charlie Whelan, Damian McBride – resigned when they became bigger news than the good news about the government that they were supposed to spread. As Coulson himself put it when finally he fell on his sword in 2011, still protesting his innocence, “When the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to move on.”
Brooks no argument
By many accounts (that is, very recent accounts; nobody said a thing when she was a great power in the land), Rebekah Brooks was a poor chief executive of News International. She behaved as though she were still a tabloid editor, taking often inconsistent decisions on a day-to-day basis without strategic vision. Her contributions in meetings, to the frustration of management colleagues, were often inconsequential.
Senior managers in the Murdoch empire have always been strange because they are, in essence, courtiers, promoted for their capacity to anticipate the boss’s wishes, not for management skills. Most are near-unemployable elsewhere; now that she has been acquitted of any wrongdoing in the hacking scandal, Brooks, it is rumoured, will go to some Antipodean outpost of News Corp. Even by Rupert Murdoch’s standards, she is a weird choice, demonstrating that even the greatest business moguls lose, if not their marbles, some of their grip on reality.
And now for the bad news. Excited as we all must be by the prospect of the Old Bill fingering Rupert Murdoch – detectives, it is reported, will formally interview him under Section 79 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which concerns “the criminal liability of directors” – it is doubtful that anything will come of it. Five of Coulson’s fellow defendants in the Old Bailey trial walked free and it is evident from this case and others that, in order to convict, juries require not so much a smoking gun as an armoury that’s fully ablaze. Though there are more trials of journalists to come, we should expect as many acquittals as convictions.
Moreover, the hacking affair hasn’t done Murdoch’s business interests much damage. True, the NoW closed and its replacement, the Sun on Sunday, sells nearly a million fewer copies. True, also, News Corp had to abandon its attempt to buy 100 per cent of BSkyB. But Murdoch then split his newspapers and his other media interests (such as 21st Century Fox) into separate companies. Their combined value has soared and, according to Forbes magazine, the Murdoch family’s net wealth is up from £4.4bn to £7.9bn. Come hell, high water or hacking, one story never changes: Murdoch comes out on top.
All hacked out
As for hoping that newspapers will repent of their sins and now accept the royal charter that followed the Leveson inquiry, forget it. “Great day for red tops”, proclaimed the Sun, celebrating Brooks’s acquittal and treating Coulson’s conviction as a mere sideshow (a “rogue editor”, perhaps). “The Guardian, the BBC and Independent will be in mourning today,” wrote its associate editor Trevor Kavanagh. “Sanctimonious actors like Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan will be deliciously Hacked Off. We have . . . taken a tentative step back towards a genuinely free press.” Murdoch’s Times judged that Brooks’s acquittal “shows that a rush to implement a draconian regime to curb a free press was a disaster”. The Daily Mail had a leader on “the futility of Leveson”.
As the press is well aware, public outrage over hacking has long passed its peak. People don’t like the tabloids and they don’t like politicians getting too close to them. They want – or say they want – stricter controls on newspapers. But in the pollsters’ jargon, the issue has “low salience”. To most, the subject just isn’t important enough to change either their vote or their buying and surfing habits in the news market. The press can continue on its merry way.