Andy Coulson is driven away from the Old Bailey after being found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones. Photo: Getty
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Andy Coulson is guilty of hacking – but Murdoch once again comes out on top

As for hoping that newspapers will repent of their sins and now accept the royal charter that followed the Leveson inquiry, forget it.

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.

Never-ending story

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.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.