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On Andy Coulson, the BBC is dancing to Labour's tune

By Tim Montgomerie

I don't want to say that the allegations swirling around the News of the World are not of public interest. They are. Two people went to jail because of illegal bugging of the Royal family and the possibility that the phone messages of other senior public figures were hacked into should worry us all.

Screen shot 2010-09-06 at 15.51.05 Theresa May has just told the House of Commons that the Metropolitan Police must be allowed to decide for themselves if the investigation by the New York Times merits a re-opening of their investigations. She probably should have been more robust with the Labour MPs who appeared to want her to interfere with the police's operational independence.

For my mind there was very little new evidence in the New York Times' investigation of the News of the World and, of course, Andy Coulson. The only new, on-the-record evidence is the testimony of a journalist, Sean Hoare, who was sacked by Coulson at a time when he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He's hardly the perfect witness.

Coulson, now the Head of Communications at Downing Street, has repeatedly denied that he knew about the bugging operations when he was the newspaper's editor. An investigation, last year, by the cross-party Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport could find no evidence that Mr Coulson was implicated. Coulson's critics have said that he should have, nonetheless, known. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps but Coulson did do the honourable thing at the time and resigned as editor of the paper.

Labour MPs still want his blood, however, and they are in full hyperbole mode. One Labour MP, Madeleine Moon, today compared the News of the World's behaviour to Watergate. Shadow Home Secretary Alan Johnson said a master of the surveillance society was running Downing Street's press operations.

Screen shot 2010-09-06 at 16.52.23 Labour, of course, can be forgiven for flogging this dead horse of a story. The BBC cannot.

I've been in Ethiopia for 48 hours and had almost no access to the media. When I heard that Radio 4's Today programme had led on the issue this morning (as they also did on Friday) I assumed there had been new revelations. There have not. Radio 4's World at One spent 22 out of 30 minutes on the story, this lunchtime. Hardly any mention was made of Mr Hoare's past and the possibly compromised nature of his testimony.

It's time to move on. The New York Times - itself motivated by a circulation war with the Wall Street Journal (also owned by Rupert Murdoch) - sunk enormous investigative resources into the NotW/ Coulson story and the result of their efforts was a damp squib. If the NYT's best journalists couldn't find anything conclusive I very much doubt that further investigations will produce anything more either. The BBC - whose top brass are facing fierce competition from Murdoch's Sky - have not handled this story fairly. Their job is to report, not to campaign. The BBC is currently acting as if it has an anti-Murdoch agenda, closely following the story lines set by The Guardian newspaper.  Its monopoly control of licence fee money is harder and harder to justify when it's basically no more than Guardian TV.


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