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Mehdi Hasan: Hacking into Andy Coulson’s past

Is the Prime Minister's director of communications, as his critics suggest, unfit to hold such high office?

In April 2009, at the height of the row over the Downing Street aide Damian McBride's email slurs against leading Conservative politicians, David Cameron berated the then prime minister thus: "I do not know what Gordon Brown knew and when he knew it but what I do know is that he hired these people, he sets the culture, he is the leader and we need change in order to change the culture."

He might want to reflect on those words. The Prime Minister's director of communications, Andy Coulson, is once again being buffeted by a political and media storm over allegations of phone-hacking during his period as editor of the News of the World (NotW), from 2003 to 2007. Since Cameron "hired" Coulson, is this the "change of culture" he promised?

Coulson is a behind-the-scenes adviser, a strategist, a PR man. But it would be a mistake to underestimate his importance to Cameron, who surprised many in Westminster when he appointed him as head of communications for the Conservative Party in July 2007, less than six months after his resignation as editor of the News International-owned NotW.

Coulson, whose £140,000 taxpayer-funded salary is notably higher than that of every cabinet member except the Prime Minister, is a man "who, at best, was responsible for a newspaper that was out of control and, at worst, was personally implicated in criminal activity . . . The exact parallel is surely with Damian McBride." That was the view of Cameron's cabinet colleague Chris Huhne - now the Energy Secretary - speaking in the pre-coalition days of July 2009.

Just the facts

So is Coulson, as his critics suggest, unfit to hold such high office? Consider the evidence.

Exhibit A Coulson was asked by the Commons culture, media and sport select committee in July 2009: "Just to be clear, under your tenure . . . the NotW did not pay people to obtain information illegally?" He replied: "Yes, that is right." But it now seems that his ex-colleagues disagree. "Former reporters said both the news and features desks employed their own investigators to uncover medical records, unlisted addresses, phone bills and so on," claimed a 6,000-word investigation in the New York Times on 5 September.

The New Statesman has corroborated some of these claims. "I didn't get involved in the so-called dark arts, as it was always handed over to specialist people working for the news and features desks," says the former NotW sports reporter Matt Driscoll. He tells me that he was given access to private phone and medical records on "six or seven different occasions" - on one occasion, he was handed a copy of the footballer Rio Ferdinand's mobile phone record by an editor. Another former NotW reporter says: "There were so many NotW stories [based on phone-hacking] that I wouldn't be able to count them."

The Tories have dismissed the claims as part of a politically motivated campaign by the Labour Party. But among those calling for a full judicial inquiry is the Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders, a member of the culture select committee, while the growing list of public figures who suspect that their phones were hacked into include high-profile Lib Dems such as the par­ty's former London mayoral candidate Brian Paddick. ("This is Brian Paddick . . . Please do not leave a message as you have no idea who might listen to it," says the current message on his voicemail.)

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has said: "It is for the Metropolitan Police, on an operational matter, to decide what the right course of action is." But the Met has been castigated for its decision to "ring-fence" the evidence in the original phone-hacking investigation in 2006.

“The key issue is that the police didn't tell the Crown Prosecution Service how much evidence they actually had," a former senior Met official tells me. "You now have to have a judicial inquiry or you have to get the inspectorate of constabulary to come in [and investigate]."

I ask another former Met commander if the New York Times allegations of a "long-term" relationship between News International and Scotland Yard are true. "I couldn't possibly comment," he tells me with a chuckle, adding: "But feel free to draw an inference from my silence." The former senior Met official draws my attention to how the former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, who led the original police investigation into the phone-hacking allegations, is now a columnist on the News International-owned Times. "It's not necessarily improper but it doesn't help, does it?" says the retired officer.

In a spin

Exhibit B Coulson also has a history of "bullying". Not my view, or the view of Labour spinners, but the verdict of an east London employment tribunal in November 2009, which awarded close to £800,000 to the former NotW reporter Driscoll for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. The tribunal singled out the Prime Minister's chief propagandist: "The original source of the hostility towards the claimant [Driscoll] was Mr Coulson, the editor."

Despite being the highest payout of its kind on record, the newspapers - and, in particular, the Murdoch-owned press - largely chose to ignore this story. I have learned that when the Press Association (PA) reported last year on the verdict, Coulson himself rang PA to issue a warning: "Do you want to piss off the bloke who runs the next government?"

That "bloke" David Cameron has said nothing about his aide's "bullying". Driscoll is amazed. "It's not surprising behaviour for a tabloid newspaper editor but I wouldn't have thought such behaviour was in keeping with the director of communications for the Conservative Party and then the Prime Minister."

But Coulson is regarded as too valuable - both as a spinner and as a bridgehead to the Murdoch media empire. Even his critics seem to assume that he is very good at his job. Yet, despite operating in a rather benign media environment, dominated by the pro-Cameron echo chamber in the press, Coulson's links to the Murdochs did not translate into votes. As the Labour leadership contender Ed Miliband pointed out to me: "The Murdoch press has less influence than it used to . . . Twenty-three front pages [in the Sun] supporting the Tories and the Tories got 36 per cent of the vote."

Cameron would be well advised not to become too reliant on the services of this particular spin doctor.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right