What Lib Dems are saying (or not) about Andy Coulson

The official Lib Dem line on Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s director of communications, could not have been clearer prior to the election: this Voice headline from July 2009 gives the flavour – Huhne on Coulson: “either complicit or incompetent”.

Yet the party leadership has been noticeably more reticent to comment on the most recent allegations, triggered by the New York Times’s typically thorough investigation.

(What does it say, by the way, about the quality of the British news media today that — with the honourable exception of The Guardian — it was left to a US newspaper to mount a proper investigation of alleged illegal activity by a major corporation, and alleged blind-eye-turning by the Metropolitan Police?)

It’s not hard to understand the reason for the reticence. The Lib Dems are now in coalition with the Conservatives, and Andy Coulson is the Prime Minister’s most senior special advisor, paid £140,000 by the taxpayer (half what he was earning when paid to spin-doctor for the Tories). In other words, he is now part of the Government, and for the Lib Dems in government to join the questioning/attack on him would be a breach of collective responsibility.

And of course within government personal relationships develop. For the first weeks after the formation of the Coalition, Mr Coulson and his Lib Dem counterpart, Jonny Oates, worked hand-in-glove together from Number 12 Downing Street (though Jonny has now assumed a more chief-of-staff role for Nick Clegg).

But just because Lib Dems in government are adopting a studied silence at the moment does not mean Lib Dems outside of government are ignoring the vital issues of citizens’ privacy and policing robustness which are at stake.

Here, for example, is Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, writing on his blog yesterday:

My concern is that the Labour Party’s ‘political’ attacks on him are diverting attention from potential abuses of power by the Metropolitan Police and persons within News International, of whom Mr Coulson may, or may not, be just one.

One of the reasons I am a Liberal is because of the Party’s historic mission to hold to account those who exercise power and influence over our lives. The ‘phone hacking scandal’ is an example of the misuse of power by News International that the convictions of two people should have brought to an end, but questions remain about the involvement of others within the company and the use, or non use, of power by the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission and possibly the Prime Minister’s office. …

As a committee, we failed to get to the truth, but then select committees do not have the powers of judicial bodies. It is my belief that only a Judicial Enquiry conducted under oath and in public will uncover the extent of the wrong-doing, identify those responsible, and obtain justice for those who fear, possibly unnecessarily, that details about their lives have been gathered and could be used to misrepresent them at a future date.

I have written asking for such an Enquiry to be instigated. How the Prime and Deputy Prime Ministers react will be a test of how liberal this Coalition Government is going to be.

And here is Caroline Pidgeon AM, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and Leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group:

The Metropolitan Police Service need to take these new allegations very seriously. They must undertake a thorough review of all the evidence that has come to light. So far it seems the Met’s investigations have been far too narrow.

“This should not be an issue of political point score scaring, but simply ensuring serious allegations about illegal phone tapping and the invasion of privacy of so many people are now properly addressed.”

Meanwhile former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik — who believes he was one of the phone-tapping victims, alongside Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes — has issued a stinging statement (hat-tip Peter Black):

“The News of the World says it has a policy of zero tolerance of wrongdoing, but that means nothing with people like Coulson in charge because they don’t know what they’re tolerating. If Coulson wasn’t able to discover what was going on in his office when he was an editor, why should anyone believe that he is displaying any greater competence in Downing Street?

“If the Government wants to avoid the compromising stories its predecessor got mired in, they have a right to expect Coulson to stand down until his name is cleared.”

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33 Comments

  • Mike(The Labour one) 6th Sep '10 - 7:32pm

    “The News of the World says it has a policy of zero tolerance of wrongdoing, but that means nothing with people like Coulson in charge because they don’t know what they’re tolerating.”

    That is pretty kick ass from Lembit Opik. Liberal Conspiracy had a good piece about times the Met has been backed up by the NotW and the Murdoch press- whenever they accidentally kill an innocent the NotW and it’s ilk put out baseless rumours designed to make us think those innocents weren’t so innocent.

    http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/09/03/what-would-the-met-get-for-not-pursuing-notw-phone-hacking/

  • Mike(The Labour one) 6th Sep '10 - 8:05pm

    The reaction from the Tory bloggers has been cringe-worthy.

    – “It isn’t a big story so it doesn’t matter” was the Dizzy ‘Thinks’ line.
    – “It’s politically motivated because it’s mostly Labour people talking about it”… here’s a hint: Bugging/hacking/whatever the phones of Labour people was politically motivated. Pretending everything’s okay because it’s one of your guys is politically motivated.

    Shameful. They’re on the bloody case when it comes to trying to out politicians as gay or expose affairs, but not this.

  • Adrian Sanders also asked a question about it today that was in line with this blog post.

  • Norfolk boy 6th Sep '10 - 8:49pm

    Stephen W.

    There is shedloads of evidence. Stop repeating the mantra of ‘no new evidence’. It has been shown by several commentators on the mainstream media to be total red herring as there is plenty of new evidence, and plenty of different people saying it.

    Something very fishy is going on…

  • “In other words, he is now part of the Government, and for the Lib Dems in government to join the questioning/attack on him would be a breach of collective responsibility.”

    As a general point, would loosening the shackles of collective responsibility be such a bad thing? We come across far to much as being happy to have inheirited the system rather than wanting to change it.

  • C H Ingoldby 6th Sep '10 - 9:29pm

    These allegations have already been investigated, under a Labour government, and dismissed.

    There is nothing new here, just reheated innuendo.

  • is that right ??

    the police officer who did the original investigation
    is now working for News International ??
    and spoke on the radi today about the case ??

    is that lawful ????

  • Coulson guilty as sin.

  • Richard Hill 6th Sep '10 - 10:55pm

    I don’t see why we should get involved. It seems an intresting battle between Labour and the Conservatives. I knew Labour would have to give up attacking the Libdems eventually and go for the Tories. Both those parties will probably end up looking bad. We should keep our mind on the job in hand, doing the best we can for the country in the present circumstances. The only thing that might make me wonder is why the Labour politicians hate their members being monitored, what are they up to.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 7th Sep '10 - 12:47am

    “In other words, he is now part of the Government, and for the Lib Dems in government to join the questioning/attack on him would be a breach of collective responsibility.”

    Just to be clear, by no stretch of the imagination could criticism of Andy Coulson’s activities in his previous job qualify as “a breach of collective responsibility.”

    What you mean is that it could be politically awkward for David Cameron. But that’s not the same thing at all.

    Surely you aren’t so naive that you feel you must never take any action that damages Cameron now?

    Rest assured that if the Tories ever feel they can eliminate the Liberal Democrats and remain in power themselves – for example by calling a snap election – the knife will be between the shoulderblades in microseconds.

  • amazing post richard hill,truly amazing. i seem to remember lib dems not accepting that arguement of “if they’re innocent they’ve got nothing to worry about” when it came to identity cards,cctv etc. interesting the effect a few months of power can have on peoples attitudes.

  • matthew fox 7th Sep '10 - 7:04am

    With the Lib Dems in the bag for Murdoch, I am not surprised the Party has gone on silent running.

    Murdoch doesn’t do dissent, and the Lib Dems know that.

  • Did Cameron ask Clegg for advice on this issue.
    It’s gone from a matter about Coulson and the Met, to now involving the government in something that happened pre- coalition. Why waste any LibDem political capital on Coulson, Murdoch/NOTW.

  • Poppie's mum 7th Sep '10 - 8:32am

    I liked what Alan Johnson had to say in the House of Commons yesterday.

    Can’t find the exact quote this morning but it was along the lines of :

    Nick Clegg and Teresa May always have a lot to say about the surveillance society – surprising to to see that they
    have an expert in charge of the government communications.

    Come on Clegg show some guts and speak out – or risk losing even more voters.

  • Poppie's mum 7th Sep '10 - 8:35am

    Sorry, forgot to add that it’s a nice article Stephen.

    A bit more in tune with what Lib Dems voters [as apart from Lib Dem party members] in the real world feel about what the leadership are doing.

  • Poppie's mum 7th Sep '10 - 8:45am

    Found Alan Johnson’s actual quote.

    From Guardian Website today

    Johnson also mocked Cameron for employing Coulson at such a senior level. “When I was home secretary dealing with this case, there was nobody anywhere in government who was implicated. Now there is.

    “The home secretary and the deputy prime minister have lectured the house many times about their perception of the surveillance state created by the previous government. It appears they may have your very own expert on the matter in charge of government communications.”

  • It doesn't add up... 7th Sep '10 - 11:53am

    Whilst I in no way condone any illegal hacking by journalists, I find it odd that so little is said about the abuses of power and the apparatus of state under Labour. The problem here is that it promotes an attitude of mind that becomes all pervasive. It would be possible to shut down the NoTW with little loss to democracy and investigative journalism. It becomes a different matter if every council and government department or quango abusing RIPA needs the same treatment.

  • Mr Coulson was editor of a vile, down-market newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. That single fact should tell us everything we need to know about his character. (BTW, that’s an opinion based on fact, ie, fair comment, so no letters from Lord Goodman.)

    The behaviour of the Metropolitan Police (or lack thereof) is unsurprising. Most policemen are authoritarian conservatives and vulgar misogynists who like the “News of the Screws” and admire Rupert Murdoch and everything he stands for. It would be with extreme reluctance that any police officer would take action against key assets of the US military-undustrial complex and families. If an individual copper steps out of line, as happens occasionally, the Freemaons are there to push him back. And if he still doesn’t get the message, stories about his private life will be fed to the press (as happened to Brian Paddick).

    Those who cannot bring themsevles to accept that Britain is governed from Washington, now is the time to wake up.

  • stephen w, george kendall never said he wanted the government to own the press ! just british taxpayers. murdoch had to change his nationality when he wanted to own american media outlets.

  • Stephen W,

    In the United States, only US citizens can own newspapers. Similarly France.

  • Just some random observations on how the phone hacking issue may play out. Of course nothing more than guess work or hypotheticals. I just want to explain why I think this issue (rightly or wrongly) might rumble on.

    1. Members of the parliamentary committee that looked into this affair (including some Lib Dems) are now saying that they did not have the power to get to the botttom of the issue and/or that they should now be allowed to investigate again/further.

    2. The NYT article included what the police today said were “very serious allegations” that needed to be investigated.

    3. Before the parliamentary committee today the police acknowledged that the original investigation could have been done better.

    4. After yesterday’s question time the Speaker may decide to ask the police to advise whether there is any evidence of hacking of MPs and Lords phones.

    5. Various court cases could be commenced against the police (judicial review of decisions not to prosecute/investigate) and the NoTW (for damages). In the cases against the NoTW you would be seekig to have the private investigator confirm that he was asked to hack into an MPs phone by the NoTW (who asked him). The NoTW then produces a witness to deny the allegation under oath or suggests that the relevant person was operating without their knowledge or admits the allegation. I can see a labour QC having great fun with that cross examination and all in open court.

    6. Coulson has always said he knew nothing about phone hacking being undertaken by NoTW employees. He resigned because “it happened on his watch”. But if it is ever shown that he did know or was “wilfully blind” then he would have mislead a parliamentary committee and would be a dead duck.

    AND the longer this rumbles on and Coulson is allowed to stay in place the more people will ask why Cameron is afraid to get rid of a former employee of NoTW.

  • Terry Gilbert 7th Sep '10 - 2:49pm

    Everyone in this country who values their freedom should make time to read Don Van Natta et al in the NYT – an 8 page investigation which ought to make a Judicial Inquiry, with powers to subpeona witnesses to appear under oath, inevitable.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/magazine/05hacking-t.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&ref=global-home

    While the new ‘evidence’ provided may not meet the legal standards required for a prosecution, since much of it was given to the NYT on a non-attributable basis, there is ample reason for a new and very thorough invesitigation by an organisation other than the Met.

    It is quite clear the Metropolitan Police cannot be trusted to investigate the matter in a satisfactory way, as they say they are still focussed on getting convictions where it is easiest to do so, rather than uncovering the full extent of the criminality which occurred. (Not to mention that some of them are quite possibly up to their necks in it.)

  • Police quote this morning….

    ‘Phone hacking was very narrowly defined in legislation and “very, very difficult to prove”, he said, adding that obtaining a Pin number without the owner’s permission was not in itself a crime.’

    So actually owning a list of phone and pin numbers is not in itself a crime, which may explain the police reluctance to go after people as they know that its going to be damn difficult to prosecute.

    But buying a duckhouse on expenses isn’t a crime either, nor claiming mortgage expenses on a second home – but morally isn’t this what Cameron & Clegg told us was all going to be cleaned up – funny how collective silence has descended.

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