Coulson…did the Murdoch hack know about the hacking?

Coulson defence ‘increasingly incredible’ as celebs queue up to sue News of the World

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US accusations against MySpace ‘may be connected

 

With both the Daily Telegraph and Guardian today querying new moves by the Metropolitan Police to increase the obstacles in the way of access to their News of the World phone-hacking evidence, Number 10 was under mounting pressure to reconsider its position regarding Communications Director Andy Coulson.


Yesterday the  Guardian owned Observer asked pointedly, ‘If the Guardian, the New York Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches can all find numerous journalists who worked at the News of the World who without exception insist that the newspaper routinely used private investigators to gather information by illegal means, why can’t Scotland Yard find a single one who will tell them the story?’

And the Telegraph’s Nick Collins stayed in touch with a piece pointing out that ‘Until now, any public figure who believed they may have been subject to illegal tapping could request a summary of references to them in the mass of evidence siezed from private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in August 2006. But now the Metropolitan Police have announced they will no longer distribute the evidence unless people can convince them there are “reasonable grounds” for believing their voicemails were accessed without authorisation.’

It seems fairly clear that this has been done in the light of celebs like Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan aggressively pursuing their suits against the News of the World. And in a very significant move, Rupert Murdoch is reported to have told a high-ranking news anchorperson that Andy Coulson should “get out from under” his position in Downing Street.

The data gathered by the Met from phonecos during 2006 was powerful enough for them  to tell the Crown Prosecution Service ‘a vast number of unique voicemail numbers belonging to high-profile individuals have been identified as being accessed without authority’. And the CPS said this revealed ‘a vast array of offending behaviour’. MPs from all parts of the justice system and the House of Commons were asking late this afternoon why in that context the Met had chosen to make release of the data more conditional now.

Mark Lewis, a lawyer acting on behalf of some of the suspected victims, said the change of policy was “a bit like the police discovering that your house has been burgled, but you don’t know that it’s happened – and they won’t tell you anything about it unless you can come up with your own evidence to show you’ve been a victim of the crime.”

“It’s a cover up, pure and simple” said one senior Tory MP outside the Government, adding “Ministers never learn. With the civil suits coming up, Coulson’s alleged innocence was always going to come under the spotlight. Number Ten is trying to draw a line under things, but this is not going to go away. This is a massive error of judgement on David Cameron’s part”.

The existence or otherwise of a culture of illegally obtaining information at both NoW and newscorp generally is a story with incalculable ramifications for the media and politicians. Newscorp owner Rupert Murdoch has been closely ‘tied’ to Prime Minister David Cameron by Left-leaning UK media, along with Labour accusations of a plot to give the Murdoch family a ‘free run’ at UK media – mainly at the expense of the BBC. In the frontline of Beeb criticism is Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, alleged by several internet sources to have approved a $1.1 million payment to settle allegations that another Newscorp London tabloid hacked into phones.

In particular, the PM’s willingness to go out on a limb for Coulson smacks of an unwillingness to offend Newscorp’s ageing patriach. The developing scandal also puts Murdoch’s financial newspaper The Wall Street Journal in a tricky position given its pompous rejection of illegally obtained Wikileaks stories in recent days….and more to the point, adds grist to the mill of his rival The New York Times’ longstanding allegation that Coulson know all about the illegal hacking – and indeed encouraged it.

One former editor said Coulson talked freely about hacking. “I’ve been to dozens of meetings with Andy” when the subject came up, said the former editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The editor added that when Coulson would ask where a story came from, staff would reply, “We’ve pulled the phone records” or “I’ve listened to the phone messages.”

Sean Hoare, a former reporter and onetime close friend of Coulson’s, also recalled discussing hacking. The two men first worked together at The Sun, where, Hoare said, he played tape recordings of hacked messages for Coulson. At News of the World, Hoare said he continued to inform Coulson of his pursuits. Coulson “actively encouraged me to do it,” Hoare said.

As The Independent today also whipped Coulson’s tumbril towards the guillotine – ‘There is a stench of disbelief over what Mr Coulson says he knew about the illegal actions of at least one of his reporters who intercepted the personal mobile phones of public figures’ – senior Opposition figures were looking forward gleefully to Wednesday’s PMQs, and the possibility of asking David Cameron some extremely awkward questions. There were also rumours that Home Secretary Theresa May has told the PM of her ‘discomfort’ about retaining Coulson, given the likelihood of further civil cases which might incriminate the Communications chief.

The plot thickened still further early this evening when The Slog followed up an obscure Wikileaks story relating to the problematic Murdoch-owned social networking website MySpace. Released Assangist documents show that an email from Mike Duffey, Special Agent, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Computer Crime Center, to the ICAC Task Force mailing list, described the ease with which he obtained a suspect’s information from MySpace . By contrast, the technicalities he had trying to get similar information from Yahoo and AT&T when claiming “exigent circumstances” were far more protective of networking privacy.

An anonymous internet email source we have yet to identify writes, ‘If you post anything risque or otherwise useful to the media or the cops on MySpace, it’s a sure thing to come back to get you later. We have so much evidence on this now, it isn’t funny. The information you display on MySpace is no way as secure as on other sites’.

The story continues to have legs, and needs some closure if a shadow is not to follow David Cameron from now on.

“Some cynics are arguing that the Government has cleverly buried this under the wreckage from the student protests”, said a lobby correspondent of my acquaintance yesterday. I think that’s ascribing far too much sensitivity to the Cameroons. What they need to do – and fast – is wake up to the near-crippling damage this could do them. Tonight as I write, it is hard to find an old hand anywhere in Medialand or politics who believes Andy Coulson’s protestations of ignorance. Advisors around the Prime Minister need to give him a reality check.