One of the ironies of the Damian McBride scandal is that the Conservative Party communications director, Andy Coulson, one of those who stood to gain most from the affair, was uncomfortable about the emails. David Cameron exploited the situation astutely, using it to demand a “change of culture” in Downing Street and securing a rare apology from the Prime Minister. But Coulson was said to have been nervous when he discovered that the News of the World, the Sunday paper he edited for four years, planned to publish the salacious email exchanges in full. The allegations they contained (many of them unfounded and potentially libellous) included a reference to George Osborne claiming he had once been photographed at a party with a “blacked-up” face.
It was Coulson, hired by Cameron on Osborne’s advice nearly two years ago, who first brought Osborne’s colourful past to public attention. He published a series of stories about the shadow chancellor during his time at the News of the World. If such a picture of Osborne exists, it is probably locked away in the newspaper’s offices, where a dossier of embarrassing material about some of the country’s most prominent figures is reputedly held under lock and key. As a former custodian of secrets that the rich and powerful would rather remain hidden, Coulson is well placed to know whether, as an election approaches, his former employer is in a position to embarrass one of the men who hired him.
Cameron’s decision to instal the 41-year-old as director of communications in May 2007, on a reported salary of more than £450,000 (more than twice his own), shocked some members of his front-bench team – like Osborne, many other Tories had been embarrassed by News of the World exposés. But Osborne and Cameron were convinced that Coulson could transform the party’s media operation. There was also a feeling that the former editor from Billericay, Essex, would bring a populist perspective to the Cameron project that some believed it lacked.
Educated at the comprehensive Beauchamps High School in Wickford, Coulson is the sort of upwardly mobile voter the Conservatives must woo if they are to win the next election. (Although he attended a state school, his two young children, Monty and Harvey, are privately educated.) Friends describe his politics as opaque, but one says: “He’s a classic Conservative voter who was swayed by Blair but never by Labour.” In short, he is one of the aspirational working-class voters whom Margaret Thatcher attracted, and Cameron must win back to the Tory fold.
Labour’s attempts to portray Cameron and his team as upper-class toffs with little understanding of the issues that matter most to ordinary people have failed to resonate with the electorate. Coulson has injected some steel into Cameron’s touchy-feely policy operation, championing old-fashioned Tory values in the face of opposition from other key advisers, including Steve Hilton, the party’s director of strategy, who is now based in California.
Coulson started his career as a reporter on the Basildon Echo before being hired by the News of the World’s sister paper, the Sun, in 1988. Identified as a potential future executive in his early twenties, Coulson was fast-tracked by the News International management. In 1994, he succeeded Piers Morgan as editor of the Sun’s influential Bizarre gossip column, having been showbiz correspondent for six years.
Like Morgan before him, he turned Bizarre into a staging post for ambitious young hacks, trawling celebrity haunts and staying out late. This habit continued when he was himself installed as News of the World editor.
At the Sun, Coulson broke a string of exclusives by playing the fame game well; he was rewarded with an executive position, briefly taking charge of the paper’s fledgling website, then called Page3.com, after which he became deputy editor of “the Screws” in 2003. He used his time away from front-line reporting to improve his understanding of how other parts of the paper worked, in preparation for an editor’s role; even so, many of the PRs and celebrity agents Coulson cultivated early in his career remained close friends.
When he left the News of the World, a career in PR, perhaps representing sports stars and showbiz clients, seemed the more likely option for the lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan. “If Andy had been appointed head of PR for the Premier League, you’d think he was in his element,” says a former colleague. “At the Sun, he used to say, ‘I don’t do politics.’ It’s just not a big part of his life.”
His editorship of NoTW was widely praised, and Rupert Murdoch was impressed with a string of scoops, including revelations about the Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Mark Oaten’s dalliance with a rent boy and news that Metropolitan Police officers would escape charges over the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.
Coulson was regarded as the outstanding candidate to take over as editor of the Sun, should Rebekah Wade, a close friend who preceded him as News of the World editor (when Coulson served as her deputy), have left the title. But he was forced to resign when his royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed for illegally intercepting phone calls in January 2007.
McBride, who as Gordon Brown’s most trusted media adviser was in many ways Coulson’s nearest equivalent in the Labour Party, has exited the political stage. But it is easy to forget that Coulson had himself resigned in disgrace just months before joining the Tories. Goodman served a prison sentence after a jury convicted him of tapping into mobile phones belonging to members of the royal family, aided and abetted by private investigators. Such techniques were commonplace at the tabloids, but Coulson insisted he knew nothing about them; he resigned, he said, because he was ultimately responsible for the conduct of his reporters.
Friends say he “took the bullet” with dignity, arguing he would have kept his job if the same methods had been used to convict a fraudster or expose an arms dealer, but the episode revealed the seedier side of Fleet Street at a time when Murdoch was making overtures to the American owners of the Wall Street Journal in an attempt to buy the paper.
Coulson’s resignation in effect prevented a thorough investigation of the Goodman affair by the Press Complaints Commission, and ensured Murdoch would not have to answer difficult questions about the activities of his British newspapers at a time when he was under intense scrutiny in the US.
During his enforced sabbatical, Coulson had time to reflect that life as a tabloid editor, as with a career in politics, only ever ends in failure. Yet less than six months after his resignation, he agreed to become Conservative communications director. His appointment was widely considered to be a gamble.
At the time, however, Martin Dunn, a former Murdoch loyalist who now edits the New York Daily News, predicted that Coulson would “do for Cameron what [Alastair] Campbell did for [Tony] Blair. For most politicians, dealing with the media is a black art they simply don’t understand. He will bring a common-sense, no-nonsense approach to the job.”
He has dealt with lobby correspondents even-handedly, according to one political editor who says he has adopted a more “considered” attitude to relations with the media since he was first appointed. Others, including a former adviser to Blair, claim he is not doing as well as he should be, given the political climate. They argue that he is too focused on headlines, at the expense of longer-term political positioning.
One senior Tory press officer who recently left Smith Square describes Coulson as a divisive figure. He micromanages staff, insisting that he sanction every announcement and policy decision personally. That means staff are seldom blamed for bad judgements, even if they are not always credited for good work. Shadow cabinet members complain about the authority he has, much as Labour backbenchers used to moan about Campbell’s insistence that their every public utterance remain resolutely “on-message”. The most obvious difference between Campbell and Coulson is the latter’s lack of political passion. For this reason, Campbell himself said he was surprised by Coulson’s appointment in May 2007.
“I’ve had a few dealings with him in the past and he has never struck me as a committed Conservative,” Campbell said at the time. “Some in the media seem to think that an understanding of the media is the key to these political communications jobs. It’s not. What matters is an understanding of politics, an ability to deal with politicians, as well as real commitment and energy.”
Coulson does not brief the lobby pack every day, though he lunches regularly with editors and has spent many hours trying to woo leading commentators. An influential columnist was surprised when he contacted her directly recently to invite her for a drink. She arrived to find that Cameron was there, and Coulson left them to have a private conversation alone. One of his strategic goals is to win back the support of the right-wing press, including the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, which have not offered Cameron the unconditional backing he might have expected. Brown, who became Prime Minister weeks after Coulson took up his role, has, to an extent, managed to neutralise the Mail because of his friendship with Paul Dacre. Brown also actively courts hostile newspapers, providing the Telegraph titles with access and exclusives.
Although that is a continuing source of frustration for Coulson, he can, with the Tories’ consistent lead in the polls probably rely on most papers emphatically to endorse Cameron at the next election. However, there are few signs that he has yet delivered the Murdoch press to Cameron, as some hoped he would by exploiting his contacts with senior Murdoch executives. Those expectations were always misplaced: if the Murdoch family does back Cameron, it will base any decision on a careful calculation of whether the Tory leader will be in a position to serve its commercial interests, rather than on the recommendation of a former tabloid editor. Murdoch Sr has ceded power over his British papers to his son James.
Former colleagues point out that the soberly suited Coulson is the antithesis of the larger-than-life, muck-racking tabloid hack of popular imagination, describing him as unusually calm and serious. Although there have been plenty of rows with journalists, a senior BBC source says that neither party complains about the corporation’s news output as much as it used to, and suggests that the number of occasions Coulson has called editors to question their news judgement can be counted on the fingers of two hands. That may be because public opinion has turned against Brown, but Coulson has also changed the way senior Tories view the mainstream media. Prominent figures who had been reluctant to appear on daytime television, a favoured means of communication for Labour ministers, have been pushed on to the GMTV sofa.
The Conservatives’ consistent lead in the polls has arguably made Coulson’s job easier, especially as the media increasingly report every political story as the latest development in a plot line that ends in inevitable defeat for Brown. If Cameron does win at the polls next year, some doubt Coulson will stay for long, if at all. That may depend on whether Coulson is offered a chance to return to journalism, perhaps as editor of the Sun, reprising his original role as a man who breaks stories, rather than earns huge sums to ensure they never appear.