The reactive news angle on the latest development in the News of The World phone hacking scandal is that the resignation of Andy Coulson, the paper’s former editor, as the chief spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, will hurt Rupert Murdoch’s attempts to buy the rest of BSkyB and damage the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition and the PM.

Well, all that could indeed happen, but with Rupert Murdoch due in London this week, anything could happen, with attention shifting to two senior executives at News International, Rebekha Brooks, the head of NI and former editor of The Sun and The News of the World and Les Hinton, Ms Brooks predecessor as head of NI and now overseeing the Dow Jones Co and The Wall Street Journal.

Murdoch will visit London while on his way to the Davos talkfest in Switzerland (which is one of the most useless gatherings in the world each year).

And, of course, son James Murdoch, the head of News’s European and Asian businesses who has long rejected any talk of a systemic campaign to hack the phones of the rich and famous in Britain by any of News’ outlets. And he, along with dad, plus Ms Brooks, Mr Hinton, the various papers in the News empire, such as The Times and The Wall Street Journal, have argued that if phone hacking did occur, it was the result of a rogue reporter, like the one jailed in 2007, former Royal reporter, Clive Goodman and private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire.

While the resignation of Coulson will damage the government, of greater interest is the question, was he pushed or did he resign to take the heat off the Government and/or News Corp and the Murdoch bid to buy the 69% of BSkyB News doesn’t own?

In the same vein, some of the speculation now wonders who next in and around News Corp/News International (which owns the London papers) will be made surplus to requirements in an effort to contain the growing scandal and protect the BSkyB deal?

Ms Brooks and Mr Hinton will be protected, but you can bet that Rupert Murdoch will make one or both walk the plank if he perceives a risk to son James and the BSkyB deal. Hence the rising interest in this week’s visit and just what occurs at NI.

Will Murdoch talk to Prime Minister Cameron in the current climate? To do so would invite more unwelcome publicity, especially with Murdoch’s strong support for the Conservatives (and now the Lib-Dems) at last year’s poll.

The Lib Dems have entered the scandal with a senior cabinet minister raising doubt over the News defence that the phone hacking was the result of a rogue reporter. “It seemed to me clear that the number of people that were being hacked clearly was not consistent with it being one rogue reporter who happened to be the royal correspondent. Why would the royal correspondent be interested in hacking the voicemails of Simon Hughes, my colleague who is a Liberal Democrat MP, for example?” Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, told the BBC’s Daily Politics.

And former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was reported to have asked police to investigate if his phone was hacked when he was Chancellor of The Exchequer.

But equally the performance of Scotland Yard and the UK crown Prosecution Service are under scrutiny. Both, up to now, have consistently argued there was not enough evidence to launch any charges against other people, despite a rising list of private legal actions alleging phone hacking, and using evidence gathered by the police in their legal actions. The CP upped the ante 10 days ago with the surprise move to order a complete review of all evidence gathered by police since the investigation started. That move, and news of Mr Mulcaire’s re-emergence, seems to have precipitated the rapid changes late last week and the importance of the stopover in London by Mr Murdoch.

Mr Mulcaire has popped up in one private action, by actor, Sienna Miller, and is now rumoured to be involved in other actions. There are also allegations of secret tapes made by a deceased News of The World senior reporter from 1998 to 2002 of briefings he had with editors and other reporters. The reporter, Ray Chapman, was involved in standing up and confirming many of the News of The World’s major stories in that time.

The Guardian reported overnight:

Last week executives, including the editors of Murdoch’s four British papers, held a three-day meeting at Babington House in Somerset about the future of the company, aware that Murdoch is flying into London this week at a crucial time. “I’d be amazed if they didn’t discuss Coulson,” said a source with some knowledge of the meeting. Coulson still has close links with the company and enjoys friendly relations with key executives.

Questions also remain over what, if any, action News Group will take against Ian Edmondson, the assistant editor of the News of The World who was suspended by NI before Christmas. Edmondson has reportedly contacted publicist Max Clifford and could decide to speak out. Clifford has said that he is not representing Edmondson. Clifford, Britain’s best known spinner, reached his own private settlement with News over his claims that his phone had been hacked. He was one of five leading UK figures to have had settlement deals made to them by NI management.

The Guardian reported over the weekend that Coulson’s resignation has prompted Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant to call for the police to conduct a new investigation. “To say this is long overdue is an understatement. Andy Coulson should never have been appointed in the first place,” he said. “I hope now, finally, that the police will be able to conduct the full, transparent, and thorough inquiry into phone hacking that we are still waiting for and that the murky truth will come to light.”

The paper also said that editors at rival papers have also been expressing the view to NI executives that the allegations about the News of the World are “bad for business” and threaten the reputation of the entire industry. That may also have increased the pressure on Coulson to step aside.

Mr Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World in January, 2007 after the paper’s former royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for phone hacking.

Although he accepted ultimate responsibility for the illegal activities, he has always denied knowing they were taking place. A Scotland Yard investigation resulted in no further charges. He became David Cameron’s chief spokesman in April 2007, a time gap that some in the US media and political circles found disconcerting. Those worries have been justified by the way the story wouldn’t die and has now grown.

Coulson’s two resignations from powerful jobs in almost four years is starting to look like more than a coincidence for many people in the UK business and political establishments. Who’s next in the Murdoch empire is now the big question. Will you read this and other speculation in The Australian? You couldn’t today, but an anodyne report of Coulson’s resignation was in yesterday’s Sydney Sunday Telegraph.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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