Andy Coulson and Other Henchmen

Glen Newey

Just how nasty are politicians expected to be? Maybe they need to look nastier than they really are, because the demos demands that they hang tough. Even so, voters baulk at politicians who go home and dismember effigies of opponents or torture kittens; indeed the public, at least as ventriloquised by the press, demands politicos not succumb to such common moral foibles as fibbing, graft and the wedlock-bucking hump. As the two demands clash, modern politicians find themselves flip-flopping between machismo and piety – which explains why, taken in the round, they often present as characterless vacuums. Thatcher’s and Blair’s premierships managed to strike both poses at once, in a tic that degenerated into self-caricature.

According to Derek Draper, sometime project manager in new Labour’s wind farm of spin, ‘the grown-up truth is that politicians have henchmen' (after his neo-Lab stint, Draper retrained as a shrink but was caught stretching the truth about having studied at Berkeley). Does it matter to grown-ups that David Cameron hired Andy Coulson as the Tories’ spin-generator, a few months after Coulson had quit the now defunct News of the Screws over phone-hacking? By that time (early 2007) Cameron knew that Coulson knew that Clive Goodman, the rag’s ‘royal editor’, had been nicked for phone-hacking in what Coulson had glossed at Goodman’s trial as a rogue singularity. Cameron’s a busy chap, and sapient bodies like the Press Complaints Commission had signed off on Coulson as a regular guy: who wouldn’t take their word for it? This Cameronian parallel world envisions a seagreen corps of News International journalists with Coulson at its apex, actuated solely by the urge to deal truth, appalled by the antics of a senior scribbler hacking phones galore to bump up sales. Who could have guessed that for Goodman anyone with a phone was ripe for hacking? Deniability lies in a series of nested naiveties: Coulson’s about Goodman, the PCC’s about Coulson, Cameron’s about the PCC. The prime minister’s fault, if such it be, was to trust not wisely, but too well.

Then there’s the Coulson who was a hacker’s hack, payrolled by Central Office precisely for his want of scruple. Anyone who’s graduated from the soft-play area knows that journalism, like politics, is a game where those hardened to the bitten bullet excel. In rising to become Cameron’s henchman – from Middle English, one of gentle birth assigned to hold the stallion (hengest) for his social betters, presumably while they brawled on foot – Coulson had proven his steed-holding mettle. George Osborne told the Leveson inquiry that in March 2007 he’d approached Rebekah Brooks, the former Sun editor and member of the prime minister’s Chipping Norton equestrian ring (during the trial Cameron was slapped down by the judge for speaking out of turn in her support), to ask her about Coulson. ‘Tell me, is he a good person?’ One pictures him earnestly pressing her on this. Was Coulson chaste in word and deed? Did he say his prayers at bedtime? Brooks was well placed to answer, given Coulson’s on-off extramarital with her: he was, she replied, ‘an effective operator’. That seems to have been good enough for Osborne and Cameron, at least in 2007.

Oddly enough, hacking is criminalised by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which denies private citizens snooping rights that it freely grants to public officials for ‘national security’, ‘preventing or detecting serious crime’, and ‘safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom’. David Blunkett, who as home secretary extended the list of agencies that RIPA licenses to pry (it now includes the Charity Commission and the Food Standards Agency), was later a victim of hacking by Glenn Mulcaire when in the pay of News International. Presumably Blunkett is happy with the 18 months handed down to Coulson, who wasn’t treated to a full shake-down by the security services when the Tories recruited him – though given his CV, the spooks may have been tempted to sign him up themselves.

Coulson takes his place on a naughty step worn concave by the successive butts of, among others, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken and Chris Huhne; at least Coulson can bank on royalties from a suitably unctuous jug-penned memoir. Machiavelli noted that for princes, apparent cruelty is in fact kindness (and conversely). Ramiro de Lorqua, Cesare Borgia’s deputy in the Romagna, loyally butchered for him, before being hacked in two on his master’s orders and publicly displayed in Cesena as a token of Cesare’s magnanimity. After Coulson was convicted, the PM’s mea culpa spoke of giving him a second chance, while gently nudging him off the Tarpeian Rock.