Agence France-Presse

Scandal knocks at No. 10 Downing St.

Updated:

LONDON, United Kingdom — Scandal is a tidal force in British public life. It ebbs and flows, bearing away the weak, the luckless and the unworthy. As much as the economy or any war, it focuses Britons on their politicians.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been in office for a mere four months and the tide seems to be closing in on one of his closest advisers, Communications Director Andy Coulson, who was editor of the tabloid News of the World when a reporter and private investigator were jailed for illegally hacking into private phone mail systems in pursuit of scandalous stories. The scandal promises to test public confidence in the new prime minister at a difficult time for him personally.

In an emergency debate today, parliament unanimously called for the Standards and Privileges Committee, which has the power to compel witnesses to appear, to open an investigation into the phone hacking at the News of the World during Coulson's tenure as editor. 

This followed vigorous discussion of Coulson on Wednesday at Prime Minister's Question Time. Cameron was not present. His father had suffered what proved to be a mortal stroke and he was at the bedside.

There was much sympathy for Cameron, but despite the best efforts of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to defend Coulson, no pity was shown to the man who, in the era of 24/7 instant news, could be considered the prime minister's most important member of staff.    

The scandal has its origins four years ago when Coulson was editor of the News of the World, the largest circulation Sunday paper in the English speaking world. The Rupert Murdoch-owned "News of the Screws," as it is popularly known, specializes in uncovering scandal — usually of the celebrity sexual variety, and even sometimes of the public interest kind.

In 2006, it was revealed that the paper's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, working with a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, had hacked into private phone messages of top aides to the Royal Family.  Phone-hacking is illegal in Britain and the pair were jailed. Coulson denied any knowledge of the pair's actions but accepted responsibility for publishing their story and resigned in early 2007. End of the tale? Not quite.

A few months later Coulson was hired by Cameron, to be his main media man. At the time the hire raised eyebrows. The pair are about the same age, but that would seem to be all they have in common.   Cameron comes from privilege and went to the best schools and universities. His life has always been charmed. Coulson grew up in the projects and went straight to work from high school as a junior reporter on a local paper.

He graduated to writing gossip and scandal for Murdoch's daily tabloid The Sun — where he worked with Piers Morgan, CNN's designated replacement for Larry King —  before moving on to the News of the World. Both papers had ruined Conservative politicians' careers, so Coulson's appointment wasn't universally greeted by Cameron's own party.

Fast forward to 2009: The Guardian published a story that claimed News International, the parent company of the News of the World, had paid 1 million pounds to several other people whose phones had been hacked into during Coulson's tenure as editor. Inquiries were launched. Coulson was summoned before a parliamentary select committee. He denied knowing anything about illegal phone taps while editing the News of the  World. A police investigation found nothing worth prosecuting. Now, that's the end of the story, right?

Wrong. This is a Dracula scandal. It was brought back from the dead via a massive piece in The New York Times Sunday Magazine over the weekend and now has a fresh set of legs.

Several former News of the World reporters have come forward to challenge Coulson's claim he knew nothing about the phone hacking. Which would mean Coulson lied to parliament.

Several prominent Labour Party politicians, including the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, now claim that their phones were hacked into and want the police to re-open their investigation.  

What this tale illustrates is an uncomfortable fact of British public life: the three-way intersection between politics, the press and the police.

To begin with, there is money. Checkbook journalism is common in the U.K.. Scoops are paid for.  Private investigators are used to supplement reporting. It is acknowledged that their methods skirt the outer boundaries of the legal. Coulson admitted as much to a Parliamentary committee investigating the story in 2009. "My instructions to the staff were clear — we did not use subterfuge of any kind unless there was a clear public interest in doing so."

But sometimes subterfuge includes keeping members of the police force on the payroll.  There is a widespread belief — not proved but just part of the conventional wisdom — that some police officers accept cash to provide information on prominent people who are in trouble with the law, or salacious details of investigations. One theory as to why the police investigation was not as broad as it could have been is that investigators would have uncovered some of their own on the take.

In today's debate, Labour lawmaker Tom Watson pointed out that Andy Hayman, the police officer who looked into the original charges back in 2006, now had a column at the Murdoch-owned Times of London. There is no inference that there was a quid pro quo ... but it demonstrates how closely tied senior police and the media are.  

It is not just the tabloids who pay. The "quality" press writes checks for big stories as well.  The Daily Telegraph, Britain's largest selling broad sheet, has admitted paying 110,000 pounds (about $169,000) to a source for the computer files that turned into last year's lawmakers' expenses scandal. For that scoop, the Telegraph was named Newspaper of the Year at the British Press Awards.

One person who knows how to work the system is Britain's public relations king, Max Clifford. Clifford spoke with GlobalPost by phone Wednesday from Spain.

His phone is reported to have been hacked by the News of the World and he reached a settlement with News International. Clifford won't comment on that case but says generally that the Coulson affair has sparked a feeling of "there but for the Grace of God ... " on the part of other newspaper editors. 

That might explain why most of the British press has been reluctant to pursue the story. Clifford added that the one British paper keeping the story alive, The Guardian, was the one paper that did not use these methods. 

And, he said, there were personal vendettas at work. Coulson was known as a very tough manager at the News of the World and some reporters might be talking now out of resentment.

Vendetta is the word some in Murdoch's corner have used to describe both the Guardian's and now the New York Times' pursuit of the story. Both papers have intense commercial and professional rivalries with Murdoch newspapers in London and, since Murdoch acquired the Wall Street Journal, in New York.

But the main reason the scandal is of importance is its effect on the government. "It's obviously embarrassing for David Cameron," Clifford said. "He will be anxious." 

Coulson's instincts about how to shape Cameron's message to rapidly shifting events are undoubtedly strong. But the prime minister's judgement of character in appointing him communications director will come under heavy scrutiny if Coulson is found to have lied about his time in charge at the News of the World.

If things go much further Cameron will have to consider Coulson's position.  For that matter so will Coulson. A poll published today by YouGov shows 52 percent of the public think Coulson should be replaced, while fewer than a quarter think he should stay. 

The police come off worse. Only 14 percent of the public thinks the police conducted a thorough investigation into the phone tapping.

Those are bad numbers for all concerned and they may get worse. A betting person would say the tide will be carrying Andy Coulson off shortly ... and wager accordingly. 

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