Wednesday 26 October 2016

Coulson would have sold his granny for a scoop – now he's making the headlines

Former tabloid editor Andy Coulson has been found guilty of phone hacking.

Published 25/06/2014 | 02:30

Former tabloid editor Andy Coulson has been found guilty of phone hacking. Reuters
Former tabloid editor Andy Coulson has been found guilty of phone hacking. Reuters
Former tabloid editor Andy Coulson has been found guilty of phone hacking

He was never afraid to ask an intrusive question, especially about sex

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'You can't sit with us," Andy Coulson told me. "We're looking for a scoop. You'll get in the way." He flashed a smile to offset his ultimatum. "No offence, but you have to move."

It was 1992, and I was with a group of journalists waiting to meet the actors starring in a new BBC series about expats on the Costa del Sol, intended to complement 'EastEnders'. Called 'Eldorado', the TV show proved to be a turkey, only running for a year.

But the media had been assured it was bound to be the next big thing. A group of us, including Coulson, an up-and-coming 'News of the World' reporter, were invited to meet the cast. At random, we were separated into groups of four or five, and told we'd be interviewing the actors on a conveyor belt basis. I was the fly in Coulson's ointment.

He sat down next to me, checked out the group, did a double-take when he recognised me, and told me to move. It wasn't a request, it was a command. Despite the fact that he wasn't actually in a position to give orders to journalists from other media organisations.

Nobody enjoys sitting it out when they aren't wanted. I joined another group. No pleases or thank-yous were exchanged. But Coulson obviously felt a pang. He passed by later, and paused: "I didn't mean to make you blush. It's just that if we get a story, you'll be able to run it at once, but I have to wait till Sunday. You'll kill my story stone-dead."

"But my story wouldn't be the same as your story," I said, thinking of the kind of material the 'News of the World' covered, compared with what ran on the news service where I worked, the Press Association.

"Can't take that chance," he replied. "We have to be first with the news." His Essex accent turned 'with' into 'wiv'. "It's a soap," I said. "Most of the actors are unheard of – it's hardly hold-the-front-page."

He gave me a pitying look. He knew his business. In his world, that's exactly what it was. And radiating purpose, he strode off – presumably to try to dig up some dirt on the people he had just interviewed, as I joked with a colleague.

I knew Coulson a little in the early 1990s in London. He was a young man in a hurry, hungry for success. Let no one mistake him for anything but top dog in the tabloid world.

He dressed well. But he didn't always behave in the way his appearance might have suggested: he was never afraid to ask an intrusive question, especially about sex. Once, he asked the Blairs, Tony and Cherie, if they had joined the Mile-High Club. At times, he could be charming and intuitive. But it was clear he would sell his granny for a story.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. Coulson went on to break rules to land some of those scoops for his newspaper – and now he can expect to pay the price, with the threat of a jail sentence dangling. The father of two has been found guilty of plotting to hack phones to get stories.

Looking back, it was obvious he was going to do well in his chosen sphere, with a nose for showbusiness stories. He shimmied up the greasy pole, becoming editor of the newspaper where he worked. Less obvious was the fork in his career path which took him to Number 10 Downing Street.

Whatever happens next, his reputation is in tatters. The jury is still considering further charges against Coulson, and he will not know his sentence until all of the verdicts come through.

Prime Minister David Cameron's good name is also damaged, with a question mark raised over his judgment. Not only did he hire Coulson, he defended his decision later, as hacking stories began to gain traction.

It was alleged in a newspaper report that Cameron was persuaded by Rebekah Brooks to employ Coulson, using the promise of the News International stable's backing – she had social ties with Cameron, and he attended her second wedding to racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks.

Coulson and Brooks were close colleagues, loyal to one another, and the trial threw up the titbit that they had a seven-year affair. Oddly, it served to humanise both defendants. Brooks, who aged visibly during the lengthy court case, was found not guilty of conspiring with others to hack phones. People may have assumed their fates were tied, and the two could expect a similar outcome, but the jury decided otherwise.

Being exonerated is not the same as being reinstated. The future for Rupert Murdoch's former senior aide must be uncertain. But the hacking scandal has claimed many scalps. Just as it created many victims when their privacy was invaded – sometimes in appalling circumstances.

Perhaps Brooks, also 46 and mother to a young daughter born to a surrogate, will reinvent herself. It wouldn't be the first time.

As for Coulson, for the past seven years, he has consistently denied any knowledge of phone hacking, although it was commonplace at the newspaper he edited. A newspaper which ultimately he helped to destroy, since the title has been closed down.

Once, as that 24-year-old journalist I remember, he might have been part of the media scrum congregating outside London's Old Bailey, waiting for a verdict in a high-profile trial. When journalists make news because of the way they gather news, it sounds a discordant note.

Or as Coulson put it so memorably himself, when stepping down as David Cameron's spin doctor-in-chief in 2011: "When the spokesman needs a spokesman it's time to move on."

I remembered the 'Eldorado' incident when he said it.

Martina Devlin

Irish Independent

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