PROFILE: Andy Coulson: David Cameron believes he has pulled off another dazzling coup in appointing Andy Coulson, the street-smart former editor of the News of the World, as the Tories’ director of communications. Sceptics wonder if it is a stunt that will backfire like Cameron’s bicycle.
Labour’s new puritans lost no time in drawing parallels between Coulson, who resigned over the royal phone-tapping scandal, and the black arts of Alastair Campbell, the Mirror’s former political editor who became Tony Blair’s press secretary. It was typical, they proclaimed without irony, of the Tories’ “preference for spin over substance”.
As if to underline the point that Gordon Brown will have no truck with “heir to Blair” news management, Labour chose the same day to name Michael Ellam, a career civil servant at the Treasury, as Brown’s new communications director.
Coulson is set for a rollercoaster ride. Popular with journalists, the 39-year-old represents the antithesis of Cameron’s Old Etonian circle, having worked his way up from an evening newspaper in Basildon, the spiritual home of Essex Man, where he was brought up in a council house. An avid Spurs fan, he is a “doting father” who drives his two children to school from their home in Forest Hill, south London, where he lives with his wife Eloise.
Piers Morgan, a close friend and a predecessor in the News of the World editor’s chair, last week proclaimed him “one of the best journalists I have ever worked with”, characterising him as “calm, focused, determined, charming and hates losing”. Coulson’s Essex accent was misleading, Morgan added. “He’s much smarter than the Old Etonians he’s about to work with.”
“Andy is hugely competitive in work and sport,” said a former News of the World colleague, who recalled that last year Coulson challenged 30 senior colleagues to complete the Three Peaks – scaling the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) in 24 hours. So keen was Coulson to bag them in the allotted time that he abandoned some of his team to scale Snowdon by “a new, dangerous route”. He plans to climb Mont Blanc before he starts his new job on July 9. (Tory detractors can only cross their fingers.)
Similarly, he challenged the News of the World’s female PR manager to teach him to play golf well enough to beat the paper’s executive editor and reigning champion. The reward would be a new golf bag.
For two years Coulson took dozens of lessons from her, often in rain and snow, until he was able to beat his rival on the 18th hole.
According to friends, Coulson is “a consummate networker” who counts Simon Cowell, Sir Philip Green and the boxing promoter Frank Warren among his mates. He is “obsessed” with Frank Sinatra and is apt to break into one of the old crooner’s songs after a few drinks. In short, he is another invigorating jolt of electro-convulsive therapy to the Tory party’s frumpish tendency.
It seems that Cameron, aware of weaknesses in his communications strategy that allowed such debacles as the Tory muddle over grammar schools last week, was desperate to appoint a senior figure to his media team.
Westminster rumours say he courted Trevor Kavanagh, former political editor of The Sun, who declined the £400,000 job. There is speculation that the Tory leader wanted a conduit to the bestselling tabloid papers in the News International stable (ultimate owner of The Sunday Times), The Sun and the News of the World. The Sun is edited by Coulson’s good friend Rebekah Wade.
To Coulson’s PR pal Mark Borkowski, the timing of the appointment is “absolutely perfect” for the Tory party. “They’re on the back foot and need all the publicity they can get. Gordon Brown’s succession is passing without the expected bloodbath and he’s surprised a lot of people. So this is a fantastic PR stunt.”
Despite Tory denials that there would be a return to Labour-style spin, Cameron may expect Coulson to take the gloves off. The Conservative leader has been on the receiving end of them several times.
During Cameron’s leadership campaign in 2005, the News of the World ran a front-page photo purporting to show his close friend George Osborne and a prostitute with cocaine, which the shadow chancellor denounced as “completely untrue” and part of a “smear campaign”. Last year the paper exposed the affair of another Cameron chum, his higher education spokesman, Boris Johnson, with Anna Fazackerley, a 29-year-old journalist.
Coulson is not an uncritical supporter. At a high-powered lunch for editors with the Tories, he emphasised his criticism of some windy waffle by a young ‘Cameroon’ about health service reforms by banging his head on the table.
But does Coulson, a former showbiz reporter with no experience of the Westminster hothouse, bring political nous to his new job? Could he have averted last week’s grammar school fiasco?
His old boss, Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, said last week he did not think Coulson was “a massively political type of person”. Borkowski, while hymning his talents as “a fantastic journalist”, wondered how he would cope in a room full of Tory suits. Yet as editor Coulson appointed a series of Tories to be lead commentator in his paper, including William Hague.
His job description — making day-to-day contact with editors and senior commentators while dealing with long-term strategy — has surprised Westminster hacks. “Is he what the Tories really need?” asked one lobby journalist. “What they haven’t managed to find is someone who can brief in the lobby, as Campbell did.”
Coulson’s recruitment incurs another risk that goes back to his resignation as editor. He took “ultimate responsibility” after Clive Goodman, his royal correspondent, was sentenced to four months in jail for hacking into messages on royal phones. The Press Complaints Commission found no evidence that Coulson was aware of the illegal activities. But Goodman is suing the newspaper for unfair dismissal. This could require Coulson to testify at a tribunal.
Yet Coulson acquired a thick skin in his ascent from Beauchamps comprehensive in Wickford via the Basildon Evening Echo to young reporter on The Sun’s Bizarre showbiz page, which in the 1990s become a nursery for future editors, including Morgan, Martin Dunn and Nick Ferrari.
By one account, he had a lucky escape when MacKenzie ordered his news editor, Tom Petrie, to sack “all those people on Bizarre”. After the deed was done, MacKenzie had second thoughts: “Hang on. You haven’t sacked a bloke called Andy Coulson, have you? Get him back.” Mischievously, Coulson once fed a bum steer to a rival that Paula Yates was having a rib removed for cosmetic reasons.
While showbusiness is sometimes dismissed as the “fluffy” side of journalism, it is a staple diet for the tabloids. Coulson’s scoops included persuading Stephen Gately of the pop group Boyzone to reveal that he was gay.
A contemporary on The Sun recalled: “He was a fantastic operator, very talented. You could tell he was going places.”
He spent a year in News International’s dotcom division, despite initially confessing ignorance of the internet, before moving to the News of the World as Wade’s deputy. He interviewed Tony Blair before the 2001 election and had the cheek to ask the prime minister whether he and Cherie had joined the “mile-high club”.
When Wade went to The Sun, he was handed the top job at the age of 34. The scoops during his tenure included David Blunkett’s affair with Kimberly Quinn, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s relationship with Faria Alam and Rebecca Loos’s kiss-and-tell sensation about David Beckham.
“I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, and this goes for everyone on the News of the World, in what we do,” he said after it was named newspaper of the year in 2005 and the Beckham story was chosen as scoop of the year. “The readers are the judges, that’s the most important thing. And I think we should be proud of what we do.”
But the royal phone-tapping scandal seemed to invoke the “three strikes and you’re out” rule for tabloid editors. Goodman’s arrest came days after the paper unexpectedly lost a high-profile libel case against Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish socialist politician. The previous month, the paper’s methods came under public scrutiny when its star reporter Mazher Mahmood, the “fake sheikh”, was cross-examined. Three men he had accused of plotting to make a “dirty bomb” were acquitted.
Coulson has now landed a job that must be a tabloid journalist’s dream: at the heart of the Tory command structure where he can pick up all the gossip. It will be a test of his deepest instincts to refrain from passing it on to his old mates.