Coulson criticism raises questions about accountability

A friend of mine mentioned the other day that she would never buy the News of the World, turning her nose up at the tabloid because of its reputation for seedy stories and salacious gossip.

On the face of it, I would have to agree, especially given the trousers-down nature of many of their front page stories.

But the fact remains that the NotW has some exceptional journalists and is an agenda setting publication whose stories resonate around the world.

The former editor, Andy Coulson, had to resign two years ago, for malpractice undertaken by his journalists and in particular, Clive Goodman, who was hacking the phones of celebrities in a bid to get the stories other journalists couldn’t reach.

As PR guru Max Clifford said last week, anyone would be horrified to know that their calls and messages were being monitored and Goodman rightly went to prison.

That Coulson did not know what precisely was going on is perhaps understandable with a paper the size of the NotW and the number of stories that go through the presses every week, even though Goodman was one of his senior reporters.

Andrew Neill, the former Sunday Times editor, said last week that Coulson was either “incompetent or complicit."  and it’s hard to disagree.

Journalists are under huge pressure, especially at red top newspapers with global reputations such as the NotW, to deliver stories. As long as the hacks can back up their story, the editor knows that in more cases than not, selling more copies is the name of the game, not the manner of the story’s revelation.

But with significant sums of money being paid to the private investigator, it does raise the question of why no one flagged up to Coulson the expenses payments that Goodman was shelling out and then subsequently why Coulson didn’t question it.

Coulson’s resignation was honourable and inevitable, admitting that since the tapping happened on his watch, he had to take ultimate responsibility.

But it was no wonder Conservative leader David Cameron, well aware of the power of the tabloids, hired Coulson and appointed him as chief of communications. As a PR man himself, Cameron was doubt impressed by Coulson’s pedigree.

Coulson has undoubtedly helped the troubled Tories become a viable alternative to Labour, albeit at a time when the incumbent government has been struggling for support and positive headlines anyway.

There has been talk of Coulson following the path of Phil Hall, another former NotW editor, and set up his own agency, even before his potential crowning glory of leading Cameron to Number 10.

But the latest revelations, that the NotW has settled out of court with Professional Footballers’ Association Chief Executive Gordon Taylor after his phone was allegedly hacked, have brought the scandal back to the news agenda once again and prompted the Press Complaints Commission to re-open their files.

Will Coulson survive or will he suffer twice for the misdemeanours of his former NotW colleagues?

Cameron has been loyal to his aide throughout the latest revelations but as Coulson is well aware, when the PR man becomes the story, it’s tricky to weather the storm.

He has said little, determined not to provide more fuel of his own to the media fire – and yet at the same time he and his party are allowing the critics and opponents dominate the share of voice with a story which could seriously threaten Cameron’s Prime Ministerial ambitions.

However loyal Cameron chooses to be, allowing Coulson to stay will raise questions about accountability, his judgement and, essentially, about the principles he wishes to build his proposed government on.