The coalition government’s communications chief Andy Coulson presided over a regime of phone hacking whilst editor of the News of The World. Journalist Brendan Montague was one victim

Andy CoulsonAndy Coulson is now head of communications for a coalition which promised in its programme of government to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.”

And yet the spin doctor is at the centre of a privacy storm over his role as editor of the News of the World during which he presided over a widespread and deliberate invasion of privacy by journalists which seems historically unprecedented.

Coulson’s reign at the tabloid marked a period when journalists apparently hacked into voice messages of cabinet members, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and rival reporters: my own phone was hacked by the News of the World. Nobody was safe.

The scale of this concerted intrusion of privacy brings to mind the workings of GCHQ and one has to wonder whether News International was listening to more private telephone messages than MI5 could manage.

This observation is all the more serious because Coulson is a highly paid advisor to the prime minister, David Cameron – the ultimate head of GCHQ and MI5.

The chief spin doctor at Downing Street was quite happy with – or completely ignorant of – the fact his staff breached privacy to find out celebrity tittle tattle. So what advice would he give if anarchic protesters were camped outside parliament causing global embarrassment to his government, or a pesky journalist was asking too many questions about SIS intelligence before a war?

The investigation by the New York Times, published at the weekend, also touches on a second issue of profound social significance: this case is predicated on the human rights act and begs the question, should Britain have its own privacy laws?

My own case against the Metropolitan Police is based on Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. I believe the police failed in its obligation to protect my privacy because officers did not warn me that the News of the World had hacked into my voice messages.

Logical conclusion

I am asking the High Court for a Judicial Review of the force’s decision to refuse to tell me if it holds evidence that my phone was tapped, as I believe it has.

My case is being brought by the human rights specialists, Bindmans LLP, alongside Chris Bryant, MP for Rhondda and Brian Paddick, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Both of whom have been told by the Met that their privacy had been compromised by the News International phone hackers, but have been refused access to the full records.

The Human Rights act does explicitly uphold the rights of journalists to go about our business – we have rights under freedom of expression. This means that journalists who are acting in the public interest can in specific instances invade privacy. I’m sure the Met itself would argue that it would be a dangerous law that protected the rights of criminals to conduct crime in private.

A key defence by reporters in the courts is that politicians – and indeed public figures – cannot lie to the public and expect protection from the law. This does not mean we can go about tapping phones when we feel like it.

People do have a right to a private life, even nasty people. And the logical conclusion of this is that the Human Rights Act should and must protect the very privacy that the News of the World wants to invade and publicise to 2,890,523 paper-buyers each and every week.

Kelvin Mackenzie’s tabloid revolution in which diary stories were elevated to the front page means a breach of privacy that is no longer compatible with European law. It now has to stop.

Must resign

Another by-product of the News of the World tapping celebrity phones is that those who deserve scrutiny – arms dealers, companies that pollute and endanger public health, police officers taking back-handers – have now been given a master class in how to keep their secrets secret.

There could be a silver lining to all this. An optimist might suggest that now that celebrities all have second, pay-as-you-go phones, shred their recycling as a matter of course, and hire PR consultants to keep them out of the “Screws”, our tabloid newspapers will have to resort to reporting real news.

Or they could conspire with television companies to produce a new generation of “celebrity” so desperate for media attention and understandably tempted by the millions of pounds being promised that they will happily hand over their own secrets.

Whatever the future of newspapers, what matters now is the future of government. The grand coalition has a duty under international law to protect the privacy of its citizens. It has promised in its programme of government to protect our civil liberties.

Can this really happen when such a senior advisor is happy to tap senior police officers’ mobile phones – or to manage a team so recklessly that they imagine themselves to be acting with his authority? Andy Coulson must resign or he has to be sacked.