David Cameron's spin doctor Andy Coulson quits over phone hacking scandal

British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman, Andy Coulson, resigned today amid growing controversy over his role in a phone hacking scandal while he was a British tabloid editor.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Andy Coulson, former News of the World newspaper editor and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron's director of communications, leaves number 10 Downing Street in London on Jan. 21. Coulson resigned Friday amid mounting pressure arising from the tabloid weekly’s hacking of telephone calls during his time at the helm.

It’s a rule as old as political spin doctoring itself: “When the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to move on.”

The quote was a direct one from Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director, a former editor of Britain’s News of the World newspaper, as he resigned Friday amid mounting pressure arising from the tabloid weekly’s hacking of telephone calls during his time at the helm.

Andy Coulson’s decision to wave goodbye to Downing Street came as little surprise to many in the British media. British police and prosecutors announced a fresh review of the controversy a week ago, and individuals such as the actor Sienna Miller have filed lawsuits over alleged hacking of their phones by journalists.

Mr. Coulson stepped down from the editor’s chair four years ago following a furor over the hacking of phones owned by such public figures as Royal princes to Hollywood stars.

Coulson’s departure, however, doesn’t just open the prime minister’s judgment to unprecedented criticism, it deprives him of a confidante who, in contrast to the privileged backgrounds of many in Mr. Cameron's inner circle, was regarded as a barometer of middle class opinion.

“You are looking at a Conservative leadership which, socially speaking, is from a fairly narrow – some would say almost exclusive – background,” says Time Bale, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex, of why Coulson is so often described as "crucial" to Cameron’s premiership.

From an early childhood spent in a public housing development in Essex, Coulson scaled the heights of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid media empire before overseeing an often-controversial reign at the News of the World. He later masterminded the Conservative Party’s media strategy in last year’s general election.

“The fact that they can rely on someone who was more in touch with Middle England, if you want to call it that, and parts of England that the Conservative Party found it difficult to reach, was quite important to them,” added Dr. Bale.

He also credits Coulson with being "an excellent media operator," citing his role in the salvaging of Conservative’s fortunes in the middle of 2007 when their hopes of winning government appeared to be slipping away as Gordon Brown enjoyed a bounce in popularity shortly after becoming prime minister.

Of course, not everyone agrees.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former communications chief whose own tabloid background has often led him to be compared to Coulson, used Twitter to decry: "Dreadful news management by Cameron's team."

Iraq war inquiry

But Mr. Campbell may not be recognizing another cliché of spin-doctoring: today was “a good day to bury bad news." Coulson's resignation came as Mr. Blair, the former Labour Prime Minister, made his second, headline-grabbing appearance at Britain’s inquiry into the Iraq war.

Some speculate that the Blair appearance was exactly why Coulson announced his resignation.

Speaking Friday, Cameron said: “I am very sorry that Andy Coulson has decided to resign as my director of communications although I understand that the continuing pressures on him and his family mean that he feels compelled to do so.

"Andy has told me that the focus on him was impeding his ability to do his job and was starting to prove a distraction for the government," Cameron said.

Phone hacking controversy

But the distraction may not be over yet, particularly if Coulson continues to be haunted by the events leading up to 2007, when a News of the World reporter and an investigator the paper had hired both pleaded guilty to illegally intercepting the telephone messages of chief aides to Prince William and Prince Harry.

At the time, Coulson claimed it was an isolated incident and that he had known nothing about the phone hacking.

However, amid reports that further disaffected News of the World journalists could go public with new revelations, as well as renewed police interest in the hacking scandal, Coulson’s replacement at No. 10 could yet have his work cut out answering questions about why the Conservative Party decided on such a risky hiring.

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