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2 September 2010

Phone-hacking scandal returns to haunt Coulson

New investigation suggests Coulson “actively encouraged” phone hacking at the News of the World.

By George Eaton

Out of the blue comes a remarkable, 6,000-word New York Times investigation into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. The key finding by the paper, which has had an investigative team working on the subject since March, is that Andy Coulson, editor of the tabloid at the time of the scandal, “actively encouraged” the reporter Sean Hoare to tap celebrity phones.

Coulson maintains that he had no knowledge of the affair and that the former royal editor Clive Goodman, jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phones of royal staff, was the only reporter involved. But this “rotten apples” excuse is rather undermined by a devastating passage from the NY Times’s investigation:

A dozen former reporters said in interviews that hacking was pervasive at News of the World. “Everyone knew,” one longtime reporter said. “The office cat knew.”

One former editor said Coulson talked freely with colleagues about the dark arts, including hacking. “I’ve been to dozens if not hundreds of meetings with Andy” when the subject came up, said the former editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The editor added that when Coulson would ask where a story came from, editors would reply, “We’ve pulled the phone records” or “I’ve listened to the phone messages.”

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Sean Hoare, a former reporter and onetime close friend of Coulson’s, also recalled discussing hacking. The two men first worked together at The Sun, where, Hoare said, he played tape recordings of hacked messages for Coulson. At News of the World, Hoare said he continued to inform Coulson of his pursuits. Coulson “actively encouraged me to do it,” Hoare said.

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Scotland Yard, which shamefully refused to launch a fresh investigation into the phone-hacking scandal after last summer’s revelations, must surely look again now. David Cameron has always argued that Coulson, his media Rottweiler, deserved a “second chance” and that he took ultimate responsibility by resigning as editor. But it would be quite something if, as the evidence suggests, Coulson personally approved the use of criminal methods to get stories.

In any case, as I’ve argued before, if Coulson did know about the phone hacking then he’s too wicked to be the Tories’ spin chief, and if he didn’t know then he’s too stupid to be the Tories’ spin chief.