Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Mr Coulson goes to Westminster.

Andy Coulson, David Cameron's spin doctor, proved his worth in front of a Commons Committee yesterday. A long committee meeting that produced only a short Herald sketch.

What every top politician wants from a spin doctor is someone who can quite cooly and calmly propagate their version of events with utter conviction. The body language and demeanour of the perfect spin doctor always conveys the truth, even if the listener has a nagging feeling they are not getting the entire story.

It’s a kind of genius that made Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s communications chief, a bulletproof witness in front of the Commons culture committee investigating allegations by the Guardian that "thousands" of public figures - including celebrities and a Royal aide - were targeted by phone hacking carried out on behalf of the News of the World.

Andy Coulson, who might go all the way to Downing Street, had been editor of the paper from 2003 to 2007, and yesterday’s hearing was the first time he was questioned about mobile phone voicemail being hacked into. He escaped with barely a scratch.

For three hours he and other News International executives blocked, prevaricated, filibustered and challenged the MPs’ questions, and when that didn’t work they simply forgot events.

They were audacious too. Twice the witnesses tried to get two MPs removed from the session. News International’s lawyer, Tom Crone, said the presence of former Cabinet Minister MP Tom Watson’s on the committee was "improper" as he is in a legal dispute with The Sun newspaper. Mr Watson was backed by the chairman and legal advice to stay where he was. "I happen to think this is News International trying to interfere with the work of this committee and I think it is improper," he said.

But it was Andy Coulson who was the star turn. In a steady, authoritative voice he told MPs he did not "condone or use" phone hacking when he was editor of the tabloid. He was, at other turns, contrite and regretted things going "badly wrong" when the paper’s Royal reporter was jailed for hacking on his watch. He took responsibility and quit the paper to be snapped up by David Cameron.

He was cornered once or twice by the underestimated Plaid MP Adam Price who asked him, incredulously, how was it possible he did not know royal reporter Clive Goodman’s stories had come from tapping the phones of members of the royal household?

Mr Coulson cited Tom Watson in his reply. "I think it is possible in all walks of life, perhaps Mr Watson will back me up on this, to work very close to someone who is doing something they shouldn’t be doing - perhaps sending emails or whatnot - and not have full knowledge of what it is they are up to," he said - a sly reference to Labour’s Damian McBride "smeargate" scandal.

He ended with a tabloid flourish, claiming he too was a victim of phone hacking. Police told him on the "Friday before last" of "strong evidence my phone was hacked"

He added: "There was more evidence that my phone was hacked than John Prescott’s phone was hacked". Everyone, the police, the PCC, even the Guardian newspaper, admitted there was no evidence linking him to phone hacking, he said. So, as any tabloid editor would ask - where’s the story?

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