OK, I’m going to hold up my hands and do a bit of a mea culpa here. Last December I wrote an article in the Mail on Sunday, ostensibly on Julian Assange, but I also used it to have a go at The Guardian for their pursual of Andy Coulson over his alleged involvement in phone hacking. This followed a very angry blogpost I had written in September which was headlined COULSON’S ACCUSERS CAN GO TO HELL. Here’s what I wrote…
Andy Coulson is bloody good at his job. That’s why the likes of The Guardian, Alastair Campbell, Prescott and Johnson are doing their best to jump on the back of the New York Times story about an ex News of the World journalist who was sacked by the paper for persistent drug and alcohol problems. You don’t think he might have a grudge, do you? They all want Coulson’s scalp. Well, sod ‘em. The Police investigated this and found that Coulson had nothing to answer for. So did the DCMS Select Committee. Clearly that’s not good enough for Campbell and Prescott – those very models of good media practice and personal conduct. Coulson took responsibility for the episode at the time and resigned. What do they want him to do – resign a second time from a job which has nothing to do his previous incarnation? Whatever people thought of Andy Coulson’s appointment back in 2007, over the last four years he has proved himself in the job. He’s bloody good at it. His accusers are political opportunists who were part of a government which did far worse things than anything Coulson is accused of. As far as I am concerned they can go to hell. Coulson is innocent until proven guilty.
Now I certainly don’t recant all of that. It is true that Coulson did a good job for Cameron and so far as I am aware behaved appropriately. He certainly did in my limited dealings with him. I believed Coulson when he said he knew nothing about the phone hacking. A police inquiry had cleared him, so why wouldn’t I believe him? Indeed, I would still like to believe now that he is totally innocent of the charges against him. But he now faces further charges of having authorised payments to the police in return for information received. I would like to hope he won’t have a case to answer, but none of us can know what the police inquiries will result in. It seems that he is destined to become the pin up boy of this scandal, but let’s not forget that he did actually resign his job (twice, as it turned out) which is more than the dreadful Rebekah Wade has managed to do.
Where I went wrong, and I apologise for this, is to impugn the worst motives not just of The Guardian but also the various political figures who have pursued this issue with such tenacity. I still believe that one of their initial motivations was political, and they dearly wanted to get Coulson if they could (I exempt Tom Watson from this motive completely, though). But as they dug and dug, what they found led them to a much bigger scalp – that of the whole News of the World newspaper itself.
I remember doing a 5 Live Stephen Nolan programme in which I tore a caller apart for his anti-Murdoch and anti-Coulson agenda. Well, it’s not the Nolan listener who has egg on his face. It’s me. And I am big enough to admit it.
For those who will relish my discomfort, let me tell them this. Several times in recent weeks I have paid tribute on air to both Tom Watson and Chris Bryant for their part in exposing this whole sorry mess. I have pointed out that it just shows that backbench MPs can actually wield both power and influence and effect change. I have little doubt that without Tom Watson, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I’ve interviewed Tom four or five times, for 10 minutes at a stretch, in order to try to understand where he’s coming from. I am totally satisfied in my own mind that he never approached this purely from a tribal viewpoint. Indeed, he told me on more than one occasion that he believed Andy Coulson to be a distraction from the main point. And that is that phone hacking has been prevalent not just in News International papers, but also others. Ask Tom Watson or Chris Bryant if I have given them a fair crack of the whip and I am confident what their answers will be. I do think Chris has erred too far on the partisanry front, but tribal politicians have to be forgiven for that occasionally.
Nick Davies of The Guardian was the journalist who drove it and wouldn’t let it drop. He was painted (not by me, I hasten to add) as obsessive by some, but the same was probably said of Woodward and Bernstein. I suspect he will be in line for journalist of the year. His exposure of sharp journalistic practice in his book FLAT EARTH made him many enemies, who will have to eat a bit of humble pie now. That book did more to shed the light on journalistic malpractice than anything, and ought to be required reading for the judge who will lead the public inquiry.
We now have a real opportunity to build a cross party consensus on the future of a free press. The Prime Minister, I think, was sincere in his rather uncomfortable press conference, when he offered to bring Ed Miliband into the discussions. And so he should.
So there we are. The dangers of the blogosphere laid bare. I hold my hands up. I was wrong to express myself in the way that I did and there was more to this than I thought there was. I doubt that admission will satisfy my critics because nothing ever does. But I do believe in admitting I was wrong if the circumstances merit it. And these do.