Media Frenzy

Will David Cameron's spin doctor be brought down by the tabloid culture he helped create?

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Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Director of Government Communications Andy Coulson leaves his house on September 9, 2010 in London, England.

It is a mark of how seriously British politicians take the challenges facing their country that they agreed this year to curtail their standard 82-day summer vacation to squeeze in a two-week session of Parliament ahead of the annual party conferences. The House of Commons last convened during September in 2004, to discuss the Iraq war. This year, sun-kissed MPs returned to a weighty agenda of debates on constitutional reform and economic austerity. Yet discussions in the chamber and down at the pub have instead been dominated by a different matter: the fate of Andy Coulson, director of communications for Prime Minister David Cameron.

Coulson owes his job to his insider knowledge of Britain's pitiless media culture — which, ironically, now threatens his job. He was editor of News of the World — a Sunday tabloid, a description that does not do its lurid history anything like justice — until January 2007, when he resigned during a police investigation into the interception of mobile-phone messages by Clive Goodman, the newspaper's royal correspondent. Goodman was subsequently jailed for that offense, along with a private investigator, Glen Mulcaire. Coulson claimed to be ignorant of the hacking, and less than six months later he became chief spin doctor for Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, which was then in the opposition.

It was a key role. The importance of spin-doctoring speaks to the toxic relationship between the British media and the country's political classes. The bloodlust of the print press is legendary (few in the London media-politico village believe News of the World was alone in tapping phones), and so an equally battle-hardened public relations machinery has grown up in government to fight off the media. A complete breakdown of trust between the two sides during Tony Blair's premiership forced the resignation of Blair's communications supremo, Alastair Campbell, who, like Coulson, was a former tabloid journalist. "I knew I had to get out," Campbell told TIME in 2007. "I was in charge of the media operation, and my relations with the media were poison."

Relations between journalists and pols have continued to fester, not least thanks to 2009 press revelations of MPs' shady expense claims. Small wonder that MPs are deriving more than a little joy from the exposure of journalistic skulduggery, seizing on fresh testimony published in the Sept. 5 New York Times Magazine to the effect not only that phone hacking was routine at News of the World but also that Coulson knew it was happening on his watch and "actively encouraged me to do it," as Sean Hoare, a former showbiz reporter dismissed by News of the World, alleged to the Times. Coulson continues to deny the allegations, and some of his supporters claim that he has become a pawn in a battle between two New York — based media giants, the Times and Rupert Murdoch's News International, which owns both News of the World and the Times's rival, the Wall Street Journal. But such speculation, together with the politicization of the saga by Labour MPs eager to claim Coulson's scalp, risks obscuring deeper questions about the dysfunctionality of British public life that the affair has highlighted.

Consider, for example, the behavior of the Metropolitan Police. Assistant police commissioner John Yates told a parliamentary committee on Sept. 7 that Scotland Yard will call in Hoare for questioning and may decide to interview Coulson. That did little to quell unease over the Yard's original decision to limit the scope of its investigation, despite the fact that its officers seized documents that appeared to indicate that Mulcaire had obtained as many as 91 PIN codes needed to access the voice mails of unwitting victims, who may have included some of the country's best-known names. The police maintain that they pursued leads vigorously, though there are many in London who would say the Yard itself has been far too close to the tabloid culture for far too long. It was, to say the least, curious that the Times turned up Hoare, a witness Yates blustered had "come from nowhere."

The Labour government that left office this year considered ordering a review of Scotland Yard's handling of the case but retreated for fear of being accused of interfering with police independence. That wasn't too brave, but it is symptomatic of what happens in London when politicians, tabloid hacks, spin doctors and coppers jockey for advantage in their unending war for influence. Will Coulson survive? He's not finding much sympathy from politicians, even those supposed to be on his side. If Coulson goes, says a Conservative MP with quiet satisfaction, "it will be karma. Those who live by the sword die by the sword."