The resignation of David Cameron’s communications director, Andy Coulson, is a setback for Britain’s prime minister: losing a good spin doctor can be worse than losing a senior cabinet member. Coulson, a former tabloid editor with classic working-class roots, was credited with keeping Cameron’s inner circle—ministers, for the most part, from posh backgrounds—on message with ordinary Britons. Coulson had been running a nifty communications team through the choppy waters of coalition politics. So why did he go? Persistent questions on what he knew about an illegal phone-hacking scandal at the newspaper he used to edit were distracting him from his role as the P.M.’s spokesman. In his own words, “When the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to go.”
The chief press officer at No. 10 has occupied a unique role in British politics ever since the 1990s, when the gruff, bushy-browed Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s spokesman and confidant, used the tactics of a parade-ground sergeant to control the press corps. After Ingham, Tony Blair’s finger-jabbing right-hand man Alastair Campbell, another tabloid editor, was a prime architect of New Labour’s first landslide election victory, and stayed a close Blair kitchen-cabinet member until he resigned over his role in misrepresenting the intelligence case for war in Iraq.
British P.M.s make less use of TV addresses and press conferences to communicate with national audiences than U.S. presidents do, though Blair went some way to adopt a presidential style. So the job of a media strategist, attuned to the mood swings of the popular press—and, indeed, of public opinion—is a key one. As anyone who has seen the film The Queen will remember, it was Campbell who came up with the perfect phrase—“the people’s princess”—to describe Diana. Placed in his master’s voice, it touched a chord with millions.
But there is another reason why a three-year-old phone-hacking scandal returned to haunt Coulson at Downing Street, and that is the close relationship he has with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Coulson used to edit the News of the World, Sunday sister to The Sun, Britain’s most-read (and most-pugnacious) tabloid. When The Sun switched sides from Labour to Conservative to back Cameron just before last year’s elections, Cameron acquired a powerful ally and, his opponents allege, a major debt to Murdoch.
The connections between Cameron’s cabal and the Murdoch organization have since attracted the ire of all those newspapers that are in competition with Murdoch, whose News International owns a third of all British papers. On the left, The Guardian began to investigate Coulson’s role in the phone-hacking scandal. In an unusual alliance, the right-wing Telegraph also ran stories about Murdoch’s takeover bid for Britain’s largest satellite-TV platform, BSkyB, as evidence of media hegemony. The BBC also joined the fray, kicking hard at Murdoch’s shins.
In the end, it all became too much for Coulson. His resignation is, in fact, the second time he has stepped down over intimations that he knows more than he has owned up to about dodgy phone-tapping by reporters at the News of the World. In 2007 he resigned as editor when one of his staffers was jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of royal aides to Princes William and Harry. All along, he has maintained he knew nothing about illegal tapping, but few believe him. How is it possible, critics ask, for a newspaper editor of his heft not to know what his reporters were up to? Didn’t he ever ask them how they got their dynamite? Too many celebrities and politicians have had their privacy invaded for this to have been the work of reporters gone rogue. Even former prime minister Gordon Brown was convinced his phone had been hacked into while he was chancellor of the Exchequer. Last week another News of the World editor was fired, and police have launched an inquiry into the whole affair.
Murdoch’s News International has not taken these accusations quiescently, pointing out to all who will listen that phone tapping is standard practice at any self-respecting tabloid. The Cameron government, for its part, has announced that the Murdoch bid for complete ownership of BSkyB will be reviewed by an independent body, but it has given Murdoch six months to address any concerns before the bid is actually reviewed, a lavish period of grace that opponents say is special treatment.
Coulson, we learn, too, kept a diary while at Downing Street—which must mean a new book out soon. To be serialized, perhaps, in one of Murdoch’s papers?
Wilford is a former London bureau chief for ABC News, where he is now a consultant.