More to scandal than phone hacking

In the past few weeks two of the UK’s most prominent PR men have faced public disgrace and prison - the sultan of sleaze, Max Clifford and the Prime Minister’s former director of communications, Andy Coulson.

Clifford made an immense fortune as a publicist to celebrities and the lurid stories that he peddled of illicit sex were meat and drink to the tabloids.

He stitched some rich and famous people up, whilst paying off accusers of his clients so that their misadventures never reached the public domain.

He was also a media darling appearing everywhere to give his views on crises and mishaps, a duty he performed with effortless arrogance and swagger.

“Every day, every week, every month, a lot of the lies that you see in the newspapers, in the magazines, on television, on the radio, 
are mine.”

It transpired that the man who lied and manipulated for a living did so in his private life as well. He was imprisoned for eight indecent assaults on young girls, the youngest of whom was 15.

Andy Coulson was editor of the News of the World, the paper that published so many of Clifford’s self-confessed lies, before he joined Prime Minister Cameron at Number 10. This week he was convicted of conspiring to hack into phone messages.

During his editorship phone hacking was often used as a means of obtaining scoops. It is a vile practice and about as serious an invasion of privacy as it is possible to conceive.

Now police want to interview Rupert Murdoch about crime at his British papers. The affair is far from over.

But for now the attention shifts to David Cameron: why did he hire Coulson? What did he know about the phone hacking allegations at the time he was appointed and just how thoroughly was Coulson vetted for the post?

Four months before Coulson was appointed to No 10 in May 2007, the News of the World’s Royal Correspondent Clive Goodman was jailed for phone hacking.

The issue was therefore live at the time. According to Cameron, both he and colleagues questioned Coulson about the scandal, who assured them that Goodman had been operating alone, that he was not in any way involved and that there was nothing more that they needed to know.

Cameron’s colleague George Osborne apparently checked Coulson out with his boss, Rebekah Wade, who, incidentally was cleared of all charges in the trial this week, She told him that Coulson was a good operator.

Unfortunately for Cameron and Osborne, Coulson had deceived them. In fact by the time of his appointment the police already had evidence that phone hacking was widespread at the News of the World, and Goodman himself had appealed against his dismissal at the paper on the grounds that he wasn’t doing anything others were not also up to.

Osborne and Cameron could have probed a little deeper. They could, for example, have asked for a briefing from the police about the Goodman case and any further evidence that they had about phone hacking that might suggest the problem was not confined to a single rogue operator.

What is really significant about this is that, at the time, with the Tories in opposition they were determined to secure the support of Rupert Murdoch and his papers.

Murdoch had thrown his weight behind Tony Blair and was so close to the former premier that Lance Price, Blair’s former spin doctor, wrote the following in 2006:

“I have never met Mr Murdoch, but at times when I worked at Downing Street he seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet. His voice was rarely heard (but, then, the same could have been said of many of the other 23) but his presence was always felt.

“No big decision could ever be made inside No 10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men - Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch. On all the really big decisions, anybody else could safely be ignored.”

Who better to help Cameron woo Murdoch and recruit him back to the Tory cause than one of Murdoch’s former editors: a man who not only was well connected across the media, but more importantly someone who knew his way around the Murdoch empire?

Needless to say Coulson succeeded.

So when you sit back and think about this case it’s not just about phone hacking, bad as that was, it is also about the unhealthy relationship that has been forged by government with the media.

Murdoch is unelected and unaccountable yet he has been followed first by Blair and then by Cameron like two devoted lap dogs and apparently given an influence on government as great as any elected politician.

We are entitled to speculate as to what he got in return.