SPINMEISTER

05.10.12

Andy Coulson Takes the Stand at the Leveson Inquiry

Move over Rupert and James, David Cameron’s one-time spinmeister, Andy Coulson, takes the stand at the Leveson Inquiry. Peter Jukes on the media enforcer’s journey to the heart of the British government.

UPDATE
In terse testimony, Coulson refused to cede any ground on the myriad speculations that have surrounded him since stepping down from government as the hacking scandal was picking up steam last January. He denied that he was influenced by Rupert Murdoch while the editor of his News of the World tabloid, saying that the two spoke “irregularly,” usually on Saturday nights before publication, and that he had never been "pushed or encouraged or told" with respect to the paper’s political leanings. And though he acknowledged that he has long held Conservative leanings personally, he denied that he’d worked to help Cameron and his allies before he was asked to join their team. “We certainly weren’t against him, let’s put it that way,” was all he would concede.

Video screenshot

Andy Coulson testifies about whether politicians and News International were too close

As to why he was hired after being forced to step down from News of the World after two of its employees went to jail for phone hacking, Coulson suggested that his experience as editor of the world’s largest English-language newspaper must have played a role. He recounted going into a meeting about the job with George Osborne, Cameron’s main political fixer then and chancellor now, “with a degree of reluctance.”

"I don't want to be obstructive, but that's a question for Mr. Osborne," Coulson said of why the Cameron team might have wanted him on board. "The conversation was very much, 'What do we need to do to get elected?'"

Coulson added that cameron had played a personal role in vetting him for his government job.

Coulson described a long-standing friendship with Rebekah Brooks, his one-time boss, and said that the two were in touch regularly while he was at the News of the World helm. “We haven’t spoken for a while, for obvious reasons,” he said.

Brooks will make her own appearance before the inquiry tomorrow.

ORIGINAL STORY

What if Robert Gibbs—Barack Obama’s chief spokesman during his 2008 presidential campaign and for the first two years of his term—were arrested on corruption and phone-hacking charges and dragged before a public inquiry into the biggest scandal of the day?

Such is the discomfort that awaits David Cameron as the British prime minister’s one-time spinmeister appears before the Leveson Inquiry this afternoon in London.

Though most media attention is focused on Friday’s much-anticipated appearance by former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks—with revelations expected about her close association with Cameron and other former British heads of state—Andy Coulson’s relationship with the current incumbent is, professionally at least, even closer still.

Brooks and Coulson are reported to have been close friends, working alongside each other since the late 1990s in Rupert Murdoch’s powerful U.K. tabloid chain. Coulson was Brooks’s deputy as she became the first female editor of the world’s biggest English-language newspaper, the News of the World, and he took the helm in 2003 when she went on to bigger things. But Coulson’s own rise was cut short four years later when the paper’s private investigator and royals reporter were jailed for hacking phones, causing the first stirrings of the scandal that would go on to rock Murdoch’s U.K. media empire. Coulson, though claiming no knowledge of hacking, took responsibility and resigned.

Just six months later, Coulson was hired by David Cameron to head up communications for the Conservative Party, then in opposition and trailing in the polls. Despite the hacking allegations, the hire was generally lauded in the press at the time. With their Oxford and elite-boarding-school backgrounds, the Tory leader and his right-hand man, the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, were portrayed as upper-class and out of touch. Coulson, brought up in a housing project and attending regular schools, was said to give the party a much-needed populist touch. His tabloid background also promised to help Cameron put a finger on the popular pulse, much as former Mirror editor Alastair Campbell once had done for Tony Blair.

Rupert Murdoch, David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks
Clockwise from left: Getty Images, AP Photo (2)

According to Brooks, in her testimony to Parliament last November, the appointment of Coulson was suggested by Osborne. It was an odd alliance—the editor of the salacious Sunday tabloid and the son of wealthy family, who had married into the Tory Establishment (Osborne’s father-in-law is the Tory grandee Lord Howell). But the would-be chancellor and Coulson had encountered each other before.

Two years earlier, while Osborne was running Cameron’s leadership campaign, the left-leaning Sunday Mirror was about to run an expose of youthful drug-taking about Osborne in the weekend before the leadership election. In what in Fleet Street is called a ‘”spoiler,” somehow Coulson’s News of the World managed to get advance notice of its rival’s exclusive story, and Osborne went on the record for the newspaper, denying the allegations. As the prominent phone hacking victims lawyer Mark Lewis has pointed out, the News of the World published a much more favorable account of events that, if anything, made Osborne look less posh and aloof. The threat to Cameron’s campaign was averted, and he was elected leader at the Conservative Party conference days later.

All these pluses may have made Coulson’s ties to the hacking scandal—which News International had claimed was the work of a rogue reporter—seem well worth the risk. His salary while working for the Conservative party was reported at the time to be over $900,000 a year, but last year it emerged that some of this was his severance package from News International employee, paid in installments.

Coulson followed his boss into No. 10 Downing Street after Cameron emerged from the May 2010 elections as the head of a new coalition government.

The gamble paid off. Coulson followed his boss into No. 10 Downing Street after Cameron emerged from the May 2010 elections as the head of a new coalition government. He was installed as the official press supremo on a $280,000 government salary. After the phone-hacking scandal erupted last summer, it emerged there were warnings about his background from senior figures on both the left and right, including Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, former Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown and Conservative columnist Peter Oborne. According to a report in the Times yesterday, there was even concern expressed by the royal family, who thought the appointment would only last while the Conservatives were in opposition.

But Cameron kept his spinmeister and media enforcer, even skipping the vetting and security checks that are the norm with anyone at the heart of government and access to state secrets. It was only in January last year, when the police reopened their files to examine hundreds of alleged hacking victims and allegations about his involvement in the growing scandal intensified, that Coulson resigned from the job.

He was arrested by police on suspicion of illegal payment to police officers and phone hacking in July 2011, days after the Milly Dowler story broke. Like most of the other 50 or so suspects arrested over the last year, he has not been charged.

Restrictions forbidding questions that might infringe on any ongoing police investigation or future trial will mean the barristers at the Royal Courts will have to take special care over the phone-hacking issue today. But points of interest will likely include Coulson’s remuneration from News International during his time as spinmeister, his security clearances while in Number 10, and to what extent he was aware of Project Rubicon—News Corp.’s long-term strategic plan to make sure its $16 billion bid for BSkyB would not be hindered by the regulators—as he testifies under oath before Lord Justice Leveson.

With Coulson’s journey into the heart of the British government the subject of great scrutiny, it is likely that the prime minister and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, will feel like they’re taking the stand as well.