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What Was David Cameron Thinking?

The British PM is caught up in the 'News of the World' spying scandal—and he has no one to blame but himself.

An article in The New York Times Magazine doesn’t becomes the big political story in London every week, but the Times piece “Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond” has been a front-pager and led on the TV news here. The tabloid in question is the News of the World, one of whose reporters was imprisoned a few years ago for “phone-hacking,” or intercepting cell phone calls, most notably from the two young princes, William and Harry. Although Andy Coulson, the editor of the paper at the time, was forced to leave his job, he denied any knowledge of malfeasance. But the Times story cast lengthy and well-sourced doubt on his denials, and his credibility in general. 

That might not have caused so much comment here if it hadn’t been for the truly astonishing fact that, shortly after his departure from the paper, Coulson was hired as “communications director” (what we called a press officer in less grandiose times) by David Cameron, then the Conservative opposition leader, now prime minister. A storm in the media teacup thus became very big political news—and for the Cameron government, a potential disaster, entirely self-inflicted. 

If not the most illustrious of the London Sunday papers, the News of the World is one of the oldest. For most of the past century, a diet of sex-and-scandal has made it the best-selling British paper, and, since 1969, it has belonged to Rupert Murdoch. It was his first London paper, after he acquired it in fierce competition with the late Robert Maxwell (what a pair!). Its story has never been more lurid than in early 2007, when Clive Goodman, the paper’s “royal correspondent” (what a job title!), was sent to prison for the phone hacking. Months later, Cameron airily waved aside any misgivings about the wisdom of hiring Coulson, saying that he believed in giving people a second chance, as though the purpose of Tory headquarters was to rehabilitate offenders. But if he hoped that Coulson’s record would be quickly forgotten, he could not have been more wrong. Last year, The Guardian returned to the story, showing how extensive hacking had been at the News of the World, which, in the meantime, has paid out huge sums to placate its other hacking victims, such as Gordon Taylor, a sometimes soccer supremo, who received £700,000. (The paper also paid a very large kiss-off to Clive Goodman to buy his silence)

In July 2009, Coulson appeared in front of a House of Commons committee and denied any knowledge of the scandal, saying "my instructions to the staff were clear—we did not use subterfuge of any kind." That didn’t look very convincing then, and it seems far less so after the Times story, in which several former employees of News of the World said that the culture of illicit bugging and hacking was widespread at the paper and that Coulson was in it up to his neck. Sean Hoare, who worked for Coulson, said that what his former editor told the parliamentary committee was “a lie.”

Hardened media-watchers will notice scores being settled. While it might seem puzzling that the haughty Old Gray Lady of Eighth Avenue would bother with a few tabloid sleazebags by the Thames, the Times is locked in bitter competition with the Wall Street Journal, a recent Murdoch acquisition. And there is no love lost between The Guardian and Murdoch papers, either.

And yet, all of that palls beside the political ramifications of the Times story. Some of what happened is still a matter of dispute. What is not is this: In July 2007, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party chose to employ Andy Coulson. David Cameron is a clever man and a plausible politician. We all make mistakes, which may be forgivable or remediable, and I’ve described one or two of his (“Tory Story,” August 12). But some mistakes are neither easily remedied nor properly forgiven, and this one was so grotesque as to defy belief. Writing with as much restraint and understatement as I can, let me say that Cameron was tonto, meshuggah, crazy, bonkers, or off his chump to have hired Coulson. The man had just been sacked as editor of a salacious tabloid after a sordid scandal that had seen a reporter jailed, and that plainly cast a huge shadow over Coulson’s own integrity. What more did Cameron need, a neon sign on top of Coulson’s head reading “I am trouble”?

Thanks to the Times exposé, the story has become far moreembarrassing for Downing Street—and made it a fresh target. Parliament has just returned from its summer vacation, a break that, a very long time ago, coincided with the season for hay-making and harvesting, and Labour is determined to make as much hay of another kind as possible out of the Coulson affair. In the Commons on Monday, opposition MPs pummeled Theresa May, the home secretary, who had to say limply that the police could re-open inquiries if they liked. 

What Labour most enjoys at present is stirring up trouble between the Tories and their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. So the sharpest Labour barb of all came from Alan Johnson, the shadow home secretary. He quoted Chris Huhne, a leading Lib Dem who is now in the Cabinet but who last year called for Coulson to be sacked: "I agree with those sentiments, forcefully expressed by her cabinet colleague,” Johnson said meanly to May, “Does she?" Another minister (a Tory) has asininely complained that Labour is acting for political advantage. Well, of course it is. Why wouldn’t it, and why shouldn’t it?

It will also be worth watching the reaction of News International, Murdoch’s media group, and the old guy himself. Murdoch is gloriously amoral about such matters as factual veracity, and thick-skinned when it comes to tabloid excesses. But he understands the bottom line. The News of the World and The Sun are highly profitable (unlike the London Times, which loses money every year but lives off the immoral earnings of its wicked sisters). If Coulson’s old paper finds itself forced to make many more really big pay-outs, as seems more than likely, it will hurt Murdoch where he minds. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the Metropolitan Police, which has a chummy relationship with the Murdoch papers. Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, says that “Scotland Yard has declined our repeated requests for interviews and refused to release information we requested months ago under the British freedom of information law. ... Our story speaks for itself and makes clear that the police already have evidence that they have chosen not to pursue.” Our own Financial Times has added that there should be an independent review of the accusation that “the police may have dropped a valid investigation.”

But this renewed scandal must hurt the government most of all. The FT is one London paper with no axe to grind. It has called on Cameron to investigate the matter, and asked meiotically, “Was he not reckless to have employed Mr Coulson, given the murkiness of the allegations surrounding the News of the World?” Even Cameron must be ruefully asking himself the same question. One of many English colloquialisms for being fed up is to say, “I’m hacked off.” Quite soon, that phrase may have painful new meaning for the prime minister.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!

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