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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.