It has taken five years, months of contemptuous denials and hours of cross examination, but today eight people stand charged with hacking into the phones of hundreds of people, including a dead schoolgirl. Among the accused should stand the British prime minister on charges of sheer arrogance, incompetence and failure to heed vital warning signs that brought this scandal to the heart of government.
Much of the embarrassment suffered by David Cameron over his closeness to News International has centred on his proximity to the former chief executive, Rebekah Brooks. Horse rides, country suppers and gruesome text messages. Yet far more serious was his willingness to appoint a former editor of the now defunct News of the World, Andy Coulson, as his chief spin doctor despite warnings that Coulson, while innocent until proven guilty, had at least questions to answer about whether he was involved in hacking.
As well as allegedly conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority over almost six years until August 2006, Coulson faces four additional charges relating to Milly Dowler and Calum Best, the son of the footballer, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke. It’s often been said that the phone-hacking scandal will make a great movie: here we have the man in charge of communicating the government’s message to the world, charged with conspiring to intercept the messages of two former cabinet ministers. Coulson responded to the charges saying he was “extremely disappointed by the CPS decision”, and that he would “fight these allegations when they eventually get to court”.
When Cameron appointed Coulson in 2007, there were several people, including some in the Guardian and several in his own party, who questioned the wisdom of employing the former editor of the News of the World in such a senior job. Cameron was magisterial in his dismissal of these concerns, saying “everyone deserves a second chance”, a line he repeated as recently as June this year.
The problem for Cameron and his senior advisers is that they themselves missed several chances to check that this appointment was for the common good and not just the good of a party desperate to seize power after 15 years in opposition.
In evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Coulson himself admitted that Cameron asked him “only once” about his involvement in hacking after the Guardian’s allegations that phone hacking was rife during his tenure at the tabloid. Neither did Cameron or his senior advisers think to subject Coulson to the same level of security vetting as his predecessors despite giving him access to top-secret documents while working in Downing Street between May 2010 and January 2011.
A month before standing down as Cameron’s director of communications in January 2011, Coulson gave evidence in the trial of former MSP Tommy Sheridan. He is now detained under suspicion of committing perjury during that appearance.
Some will argue that George Osborne, in recommending an out-of-work Coulson for the job of party communications chief, is as responsible as his boss for ignoring any warning signs. Yet Cameron has repeatedly taken responsibility for the appointment of Coulson. “This was my decision,” he told Leveson about the appointment of Coulson. “I take full responsibility for it.” Cameron also repeated the view that while the “controversial appointment has come back to haunt both him and me” Coulson was an “effective” press aide, “tough and robust” and “someone who had a good code of behaviour in how he did his job”.
Cameron will no doubt hope to bask in the glow of the Olympian sun this week or at the very least distract Britons with valid concerns about a plummeting economy. But he still has questions to answer about his behaviour in the phone-hacking scandal. “If it turns out I have been lied to that would be a moment for a profound apology,” he said a year ago. We’ve just got a step closer to knowing whether that day will come.