Fallout of U.K. Hacking Scandal Reaches 10 Downing Street

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Andy Coulson, British Prime Minister David Cameron's former Director of Communications, outside his home in London on September 10, 2010. (Photo: Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images)

It was the kind of tip-off that Andy Coulson would have appreciated in his days at the News of the World. As news broke that the title was to close, a source told the Guardian that the former editor of the tabloid was to be arrested by police investigating allegations of hacking and reports that the News of the World made hefty—and illegal—payments to police for just such tip-offs during Coulson’s editorship. The scrupulous Guardian will doubtless have obtained its information via a legitimate route, and was proved right when Scotland Yard issued a terse statement on July 7:

At 10.30 officers from Operation Weeting [the investigation into hacking] together with officers from Operation Elveden [the investigation into police payments] arrested a man on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications, contrary to Section 1(1) Criminal Law Act 1977 and on suspicion of corruption allegations contrary to Section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. The man, aged 43yrs, was arrested by appointment at a South London police station. He is currently in custody.

An hour before Coulson’s arrest, another man in his mid-40s had made a strenuous effort to intercept communications. Britain’s Prime Minister scheduled a hasty press conference to try to mitigate the damage he knew the arrest must cause to his reputation. In 2007 the Conservative leader hired Coulson to handle his media strategy in full knowledge that Coulson had resigned from the News of the World only months before over its illicit news-gathering techniques. The paper’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator contracted to the News of the World, served prison sentences after admitting to hacking voice mails. Coulson said he was in the dark about their activities. His assurances were accepted by David Cameron, who went on to install Coulson as his director of communications after scraping into power in the 2010 elections, despite mounting evidence that Goodman and Mulcaire were not, as painted, rogue exceptions, but part of a wider culture.

That an ambitious politician such as Cameron would take a risk on buying damaged goods—or on giving Coulson “a second chance” as the normally fluent Prime Minister repeated robotically at the press conference—says a great deal about the sway of the tabloid press over British political life. The influence of Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of the two biggest, the Sun and the News of the World, has been profound, not least because successive political leaders believed his approbation could make them and his opposition might break them. In fact Tony Blair’s success also owed much to his abilities as a communicator, to timing and to a certain amount of dumb luck, but even with three electoral victories in the bag, to the moment he left Downing Street and beyond, he was wooing Murdoch. In his first six years in office he was assisted in this endeavor by Alastair Campbell, like Coulson a former tabloid journalist.

Cameron saw in Coulson his very own Alastair Campbell, someone who could communicate with the tabloids because he was of the tabloid world. Campbell, who resigned in 2003 after a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of government weapons expert David Kelly, left a mixed legacy; intimately involved in pushing a (now unraveled) case for the Iraq War, his relations with the media turned to “poison,” as he admits. Coulson’s dealings with parliamentary correspondents were cordial by comparison (though he did once ring me up late at night to complain about a punning headline describing his posh boss as A CLASS ACT; class was no longer an issue for British voters, he growled.) But he has left Cameron with far greater problems than any animus from the press. Indeed, Coulson’s arrest is seen in some circles as toxic for Cameron as the Iraq War proved for Blair.

The problem for Cameron is that his decision to hire Coulson looks at best spectacularly naive and at worst venal, a sign that his appetite for office overwhelmed his scruples. His well-documented friendship with Rebekah Brooks, Coulson’s predecessor at the News of the World, now Murdoch’s Chief Executive in the U.K., added to the impression that he cared more for Murdoch’s opinion than public opinion. He used the press conference to cut himself loose from Brooks, responding to rumors that Murdoch had rejected her offer to resign by saying that if he were offered her resignation, he would accept it. (Instead she remains at the head of News Corporation’s British subsidiary News International but will no longer head the internal clean-up operation.)

After Coulson’s arrest, the police also re-arrested Goodman in connection with alleged payments to their own number, and raided the offices of the Daily Star, Goodman’s employer since he left prison. The fresh headlines swamped the messages Cameron hoped to get across: that he was setting up a judge-led inquiry to address why the 2006 police investigation into the News of the World failed to pursue myriad leads, and what the tabloid and other papers really were up to; that a second inquiry would look at the culture, ethics and practices of the British press; and that the U.K. media should and would be subject to a new and more effective system of regulation.

He also sought simultaneously to accept responsibility for the crisis and to spread it around. “How did we get here?” he asked, rhetorically.

Because as we’re considering the devastating revelations of the past few days, it is no good just pointing the finger at this individual journalist, that individual newspaper. It’s no good, actually, just criticizing the police. The truth is, we have all been in this together—the press, politicians, and leaders of all parties—and yes, that includes me.

It most certainly does. And it’s hard to see how Cameron can extricate himself from a scandal that shows every sign of gaining pace.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.