01.21.11

David Cameron's Flack Hack Scandal

A royal phone-bugging debacle from his tabloid-editing days forced Andy Coulson, the U.K. leader's PR guru, to resign Friday. Howard Kurtz on how the media brought down one of their own.

There was a bit of poetic justice, somehow, in a former newspaper editor, accused of trampling journalistic ethics, leaving his very important government job and silently striding past a pack of shouting reporters.

The humiliating scene at 10 Downing Street was also a victory for The New York Times over Rupert Murdoch—not that anyone in Arthur Sulzberger’s employ would be so petty as to point that out, unless you eavesdropped on their phone calls, which is precisely what the high-level aide to Prime Minister David Cameron was accused of condoning.

Andy Coulson, the former editor in chief of Murdoch’s News of the World, r esigned Friday, less than five months after the Times revived a phone-hacking scandal that tarnished the tabloid’s reputation and put a bull's eye on Coulson’s back.

When the story, which accused Scotland Yard of bungling the probe, was published, a News of the World managing editor declared that “it stretches credulity” to believe that the Times wasn’t pursuing the scandal as part of a “competitive rivalry.” (Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal was then starting up a New York section and boldly threatening to eat the Times’ lunch.)

But this accusation, dismissed by the Gray Lady, misses a key point: how incredibly juicy the scandal is. It surely marked the first time that these words appeared in the New York broadsheet: “Harry Buried Face in Margo's Mega-Boobs. Stripper Jiggled... Prince Giggled.” (What’s the point of running a 6,200-word exposé about British hacks if you can’t quote a titillating tabloid headline?)

Coulson was running News of the World in 2007 when one of its reporters and an investigator hired by the paper pleaded guilty to illegally accessing the phone messages of aides to Prince William and Prince Harry. The official line was that these were rogue operators and Coulson was kept in the dark. He resigned the day the two men were jailed and later joined the staff of Cameron, then the Tory leader.

The Times, however, quoted a former News of the World reporter as saying that Coulson not only knew about the phone-hacking techniques, he encouraged them. Other current and former editors and reporters described a newsroom ethos of getting a story by any means necessary—an attitude on display last year when a News of the World reporter, posing as a sheik, secretly videotaped Sarah Ferguson appearing to ask for a payoff in exchange for influence peddling.

The hacking scandal had largely faded when Cameron was elected and tapped Coulson as his communications director. He became part of the prime minister’s inner circle and seemed determined to ride out the aftershocks.

But British prosecutors stepped up their review last week, and the News of the World recently suspended a senior editor who had worked with Coulson. That move came after fresh allegations against the editor, Ian Edmondson, in a lawsuit by actress Sienna Miller, one of a number of public figures—including prominent soccer players—who are suing or weighing lawsuits against the paper.

So what did Coulson have to say about his impending departure? The former journalist blamed, yes, the press.

“Unfortunately,” Coulson said in a statement, “continued coverage of events connected to my old job at the News of the World has made it difficult for me to give the 110 percent needed in this role. I stand by what I’ve said about those events, but when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to move on.”

Translation from the original British: I didn’t do anything wrong, it’s those pesky reporters!

Translation from the original British: I didn’t do anything wrong, it’s those pesky reporters!

In a bit of American-style damage control, the resignation was announced while Tony Blair was fielding questions at an Iraq War inquiry and the Labour Party was grappling with the resignation of former Home Secretary Alan Johnson after allegations that his bodyguard had had an affair with Johnson’s wife. If the plan was to bury the news, it didn’t work.

The continuing hacking probe may complicate life for Murdoch, who is trying to win approval to complete a takeover of British Sky Broadcasting. The Independent editorialized: “An iron triangle consisting of Downing Street, [Murdoch’s] News International… and the Metropolitan Police attempted to rubbish this investigation and tried to sweep wrongdoing under the carpet.”

Tom Watson, a Labour lawmaker, said the Coulson controversy raises questions about Cameron’s judgment and should trigger a deeper investigation of Murdoch’s media empire.

The New York Times quoted Watson as saying: “Spin and obfuscation is all we get from Downing Street—we need to get to the truth.”

The Times may have gotten an extra kick out of reporting that as Coulson was being kicked out the door at 10 Downing.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.