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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions - In conversation with Andy Coulson: Crisis, What Crisis?

Posted on 05 November 2020

In October, Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor, Downing Street Communications Director and inmate of HMP Belmarsh, spoke with Head of the White Collar Crime & Investigations Group Jo Rickards, about his new podcast: 'Crisis, What Crisis?'

Andy's podcast, 'Crisis, What Crisis?' talks to embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, resilient, unlucky (and lucky) survivors of crisis. Guests talk honestly, with humour and in the hope that they have valuable lessons to share at a time when crisis has become the new normal.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

Jo Rickards

Hello there and welcome to Mishcon’s Academy Talks.  I’m Jo Rickards and my guest today is Andy Coulson.  So thanks so much for coming, Andy. 

Andy Coulson

No.  Thanks for asking. 

Jo Rickards

You and I met nearly 10 years ago now, which is unbelievable.   When you had your very own, very public crisis arising out of the phone hacking case at The News Of The World.  You stood trial twice.  Once in England and then in Scotland and now you run your own advisory business Coulson Partners and you specialise in helping leaders to kind of run their business and meet challenges as they come along.  And so I want to explore today kind of how your own crisis has shaped you and how you’ve kind of turned it around and got to the place that you are at today.  So, can you give us a kind of thumbnail sketch leading up to the point where you and I met, kind of your history and background? 

Andy Coulson

I started as a trainee journalist on my local paper at 20.  I then went and worked, got myself some shifts and I went to work on Fleet Street, on The Sun and then you know, from there it was you know, a fantastic decade actually.  I made some terrific mistakes and I’m sure we’ll get into that, mistakes for which I’m extremely sorry.  But I can’t you know, not tell the truth about my newspaper career and that decade, my twenties, were terrifically exciting.  I wasn’t a political journalist, I was a showbiz journalist and I had my own column and I you know, I was in the days when record companies and film companies would fly you around the world to interview whoever you know, their star was in that given week.  That’s essentially what I did for a decade and then I moved from being a reporter if you like to being an executive at The Sun.  I was the number two at The Sun for a number of years.  The Sun’s where I spent most of my newspaper career.  Then I had a brief period working on the internet for Rupert Murdoch, setting up the websites and they asked me to become the deputy editor of The News Of The World and that was…

Jo Rickards

That was a Sliding Doors moment. 

Andy Coulson

…and that was a Sliding Door mo… that turned out to be a pretty dramatic Sliding Door moment for me! And so then I went to The News Of The World as the deputy and then I became the editor in 2003 and I was the editor for four years.  And then as you know I spent the next, I spent the next sort of six months after I resigned from The News Of The World, I then spent sort of six months wondering what I was going to do next.  I thought maybe I’d go back to newspapers but in America and then I was, I found myself in some conversations with the Conservative Party and the more I talked to them and I talked to them for quite some time, I decided that this is a really interesting thing to do.  And then I went into politics.  I joined in sort of spring of 2007.  We didn’t know when the election was going to be until finally we got to the election in 2010.  So, we were in a sort of constant campaigning state and then, yeah, we just about got over the line.  Not with a majority but into a coalition and then I found myself running a Government communications department, establishing a Government communications department that was across two parties.  So, the people that I’d been effectively competing against you know, from the Lib Dems were then part of the team and that was a fascinating challenge in and of itself.  And then that led, you know there’d been a number of resignations, as you know Jo, and then that led in 2011 to my resigning. 

Jo Rickards

And that kind of coincided with the kind of build-up didn’t it? The sort of slow murmur of the investigation and then legal proceedings and all the rest of it?

Andy Coulson

Yeah and that kind of started in a… towards the end of 2010. 

Jo Rickards

Yeah. 

Andy Coulson

And that essentially is why I resigned.  I said at the time, that when a spokesman needs a spokesman it’s a bit of a clue that it’s time to move on and that’s how I felt.  That’s actually how I… in a different way that’s how I felt about The News Of The World as well because I was, you know, I was the editor of a red-top newspaper that had you know, views, particularly around law and order and I just felt in 2007 when my royal reporter had been convicted and sent to prison, that my position was untenable.  I maintained that I didn’t break the law but I made a load of mistakes as an editor.  Some terrible misjudgement and you know, I honestly felt I should pay a price for that you know, and I did and I put an end to, effectively put an end to my newspaper career. 

Jo Rickards

Yeah.  And how did you cope with… because you had such a stratospheric rise.  You know, you were going right up and then all of a sudden you were a bit like you know, a Covid spike.  You’re right down again after lockdown but you’ve got to sort of deal with that and how did you find the resilience to deal with that?  Because we had a long stretch in time of us where we knew this case was going, take years. 

Andy Coulson

Yeah.  Well, it took me a little while to get my head around it but I was able you know, largely because of the support of my wife and my kids and an amazing group of friends, many of whom owed me absolutely nothing, who kind of you know, stuck with me.  That is the single most important thing but put that to one side for the purposes of this conversation, what I was able to do pretty quickly was you know, understand what was happening to me and that sounds a fairly obvious thing to do but often when you are facing a challenge, that can take some time.  The second thing I was able to get to and this took longer and is an ongoing process, you’ve got to understand what you have control over and what you don’t have control of and obviously my reputation was damaged.  Let’s put it mildly.  And getting to a point where you can say to yourself you know, what people think of you, whatever you think the truth is of yourself and I’m very clear on what my truth is if you like, you know that’s all well and good but you’ve got to be able to let other people have their opinions and not let it kind of get inside and that’s really hard. 

Jo Rickards

That must be hard, yeah. 

Andy Coulson

It’s a difficult thing to do but it’s absolutely critical. 

Jo Rickards

We got to the end of the first trial at The Old Bailey with all the kind of theatre that that involves and of course it went the wrong way for us and you ended up going to prison.  Packing a bag full of stuff that then they wouldn’t let you take in and being in a van going out to Belmarsh.  How was that?  Was that scary?

Andy Coulson

Yeah.  I mean it was obviously daunting and I was obviously you know, pretty anxious.  I’d had a lot of time to think about it.  You know, I did a lot of reading about prison.  I did a lot of kind of research on it.  Most of that turned out to be entirely wrong.  Not least the kind of, ‘What can you take in?’ and ‘What will life be like?’ But it was, I think, partly because I’m a journalist by trade, I found parts of it fascinating you know, to be in that situation with a lot of other men who were – for a whole range of different reasons – in the same place, at the same moment, experiencing the same thing.  On one level it was fascinating and also I was seeing a system that I’d kind of been involved with albeit only really from a communications, not from a policy point of view, but from a communications point of view, from the other side of the fence to suddenly find yourself in the midst of it was, at times, fascinating.  But the… fascinating is not the word I would use to describe prison.  It was mind-numbingly dull.  There was very little education, there was very little work, there was very little of anything outside of your cell so I would more often than not you’d be spending 20 hours plus behind the door.  And obviously there was the kind of at Belmarsh there was the sort of running theme of, ‘When am I going to be moved to a D-Cat prison?’ And that was, you’ll remember, a very long sort of fairly…

Jo Rickards

It took a long time. 

Andy Coulson

… frustrating process. 

Jo Rickards

But that was a lot better by the time you got there wasn’t it?

Andy Coulson

Yeah it was a totally different regime.  And the Governor there sat me down on the day I arrived and he said, ‘Look,’ you know, ‘You’re going to be here for…’ I think it was just over two and a half months …’and we’re going to put you to work’.  I was at a prison called Hollesley Bay on the Suffolk coast and it’s a resettlement prison.  So, it’s preparing people for re-engagement.  And so I was working in the resettlement department as an orderly and that meant that I was interviewing on a daily basis, other inmates and helping them with their CVs and doing Dragon’s Den presentations.  It was a really rewarding and quite fascinating job.  So, Hollesley Bay was a completely different, a completely different experience but it was still prison. 

Jo Rickards

Yeah. 

Andy Coulson

And I was still separated from my family and anyone who says that prison – D-Cat or otherwise – is a sort of holiday camp experience, I can tell you it absolutely isn’t. 

Jo Rickards

And then so, you got through all of that process, came out of Hollesley Bay and then still had the Scottish trial to contend with.  It was a kind of never-ending roller coaster of trials for you. 

Andy Coulson

I came out of prison in November 2014 and then the trial in Scotland, that started I think in the May of the following year.  So, I was on a tag sort of in-between times and then I came off the tag and then immediately went into another trial.  So, that was you know, that was quite difficult. 

Jo Rickards

The big thing that I get from talking to you now though is, and at the time, actually, I mean, you’re just not at all bitter.  I mean, you obviously have regrets but you haven’t let it turn you into a bitter person. 

Andy Coulson

No, well I think that there’s obviously a fundamental difference between regret and bitterness and I deeply regret you know, so much of it.  But I’ve tried to stay positive.  I can’t say that’s been a daily success for me.  I’ve had some you know, pretty dark days and every bitter day that I’ve had and I’ve had a few, I always felt worse the following day.  You really have got to stay out of that.  I’ve managed to do that.  But you’ve got to you know, you need help with that. 

Jo Rickards

Yeah. 

Andy Coulson

I’ve had, as I’ve said already, tremendous help from you know, my family and my friends but I’ve also had professional help as well you know and I’m a great believer in it.  It’s been enormously beneficial for me and continues to be. 

Jo Rickards

Right.  No, no, I’m a believer in it too, I think it’s really helpful for people.  You’ve, I mean, so you came out and lots of people would have thought, ‘Right.  How do I re-establish myself?  I’ll publish a book’ and you’ve never done that.  You decided instead to start a business. 

Andy Coulson

You know, I was the editor of The News Of The World for four years.  I spent five years talking about it  you know, through that negative prism that I talked about earlier, if I’d written a book and gone off, I don’t know, what’s that another year of picking…

Jo Rickards

Yeah of reflection and looking backwards…

Andy Coulson

…of picking through it all - entirely negative and I just wanted to do something positive.  And my plan was always to start a business.  So, that’s what I decided to do and the business is now you know, I started in January 2016 and we’re going pretty well.  I’m working with some brilliant people.  We’ve got some fantastic clients and I’m very glad I made that decision. 

Jo Rickards

And have you found your history to kind of be beneficial to clients or has it put clients off or a bit of both?

Andy Coulson

Well, if it puts them off you never find out because of course they don’t work with you so, it’s pretty efficient.  I’m sure there are.  I’m sure that there are and I’m sure that there have been but you’ve got to understand what you have control of and what you don’t have control of and I don’t have control of what other people think of me, at all.  And if there are other people who look at me and my story and the offer that I have in my business and think, ‘That’s not for me’ then you know, they’re well within their rights to reach that conclusion.  So… but when I do get an opportunity and when it is in my control then I try and do the best job possible and that has gone very well so far you know, as I say, we’ve got some, we’ve done some interesting work with some interesting people and that’s really rewarding. 

Jo Rickards

Yeah, and, and you’ve used lockdown to start your podcast. 

Andy Coulson

Yes.  Me and everyone else I think. 

Jo Rickards

Ah, yeah there have been quite a few.  But yours is about crisis. 

Andy Coulson

Yes

Jo Rickards

And how you manage crisis and what made you want to focus on that aspect?

Andy Coulson

Well, I think because of what you know, because of what happened and also because of my you know, the sort of pre-history if you like, I’ve always been in and around crisis so most of my professional life I was a sort of crisis volunteer, right and then I found myself as a conscript in the volunteer years if you like you know, in newspapers.  Particularly when I was on The Sun, it’s a daily crisis right.  You’re chasing towards a deadline and it is in effect a sort of daily, professional daily crisis.  Obviously on a weekly basis once you move to a Sunday newspaper.  And then in politics it’s a sort of hourly event.  I’ve always sort of slightly prided myself on being able to handle a crisis well and to sort of think clearly and stay strategic, which is the absolute key when you’re in a crisis to be able to judge the difference between tactics and strategy and to kind of you know, try and knock the path clear of the tactical problems so that you stay strategic.  That was essentially my job in politics.  I spent a lot of time when I was in prison and in that process, talking to other people who were involved to one extent or another in something similar and I was really interested in how and people’s approach and so I just thought with lockdown I’d save myself a whole load of commuting time.  I live down in Kent and I thought, ‘I’m not going to waste that time.  Let’s put it to use’ and so I just started talking to, I started talking to people about crisis and we’ve had some really interesting people on.  The danger with podcasting actually is that you don’t let it take over your life because it’s such a lovely thing to do and it’s such an interesting thing to do.  But that’s not my day job you know, my day job is the business and that’s what I’m focused on and I’ve got proper responsibilities there now with the team that we’re building and most importantly with the clients that we’re looking after so no, I’m focused on that but this is a you know, there aren’t many positives from Covid.  It’s been a wretched situation.  A tragic situation for so many people but if there’s one little positive for me is it’s given me the time to do that. 

Jo Rickards

Yeah. 

Andy Coulson

And the time to spend a bit more time with the family which has also been a big plus. 

Jo Rickards

That is a big plus.  Well, obviously Covid is a massive crisis for everyone and particularly the Government and do you think you and David would have dealt with it differently if you’d been at number 10?

Andy Coulson

Honestly, I think armchair advisor is the easiest job in the world.  That’s the first thing I should say.  No, I can’t, I can’t say that at all.  I… look, I think it’s a, it is unprecedented as we all know, it’s a considerably more complex difficult communications problem than I ever had to deal with.  You know, not to harp back to when I was in the job but the thing that I did have a passionate belief around was the power of national interest.  A fairly obvious thing to say and when you’re able to harness the national interest in politics, you really get momentum and we managed to do that a couple of times during my period.  In fact, we turned the coalition into, at least in the sort of first six months or so, into a success on that basis.  It felt like a national effort.  And although there has obviously been a lot of kind of national effort, spirit around this crisis, quite rightly, anchored around the NHS you know, my view is that you’ve got to have some of that around the centre as well and that doesn’t mean that people need to go out and start clapping for Boris.  That obviously is not going to happen and shouldn’t happen but there does need to be a sort of a bit of spirit around what the Government are trying to achieve and somehow that’s just not happened and I don’t…

Jo Rickards

I think it happened initially. 

Andy Coulson

It happened initially. 

Jo Rickards

And there was a lot of sympathy when Boris himself was ill. 

Andy Coulson

Certainly, certainly and it may be that Boris’ illness is one of the reasons why there isn’t enough of it right now because that in the end is on the leader’s shoulders.  You’ve got to be out living, breathing, kind of fighting for that every day.  But I sense that there is a, there is definitely a sort of a lack of grip. 

Jo Rickards

We saw recently you know, the Dominic Cummings thing and without going into a great deal of detail about that, he obviously became the story for a bit so he didn’t do what you did which was resign when he became the kind of centre or the distraction.  Do you think it would have been a bit better if he had?

Andy Coulson

I don’t know.  Look, in the end it’s, the decisions,  in his case it’s a two-person situation.  It’s him and the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister declared he didn’t want him to resign.  And once the Prime Minister tells you he doesn’t want you to resign you’ve got…  then it’s a one-person decision you’ve got to decide how you feel about it.  Honour is finding recidivist as you know so my view was, ‘I can’t do this job.  So, I need to resign’.  Dominic obviously took a different view. 

Jo Rickards

And what do you think about this move to a kind of more US-style of politics? To actually have a spokesperson fielding the questions?

Andy Coulson

It’s high risk.  We looked at it in 2010 funnily enough.  I remember a conversation with David where we wondered whether or not that might be a good idea.  But we decided in the end that it was a hiding to nothing.  And also, I think just looks a bit grand.  It’s different now because we’re in a crisis and if you want to try and find a way of getting a grip, it’s definitely an idea.  But my God, what a challenge because you’re going to have to second-guess across so many departments. 

Jo Rickards

I assumed that the reason that that was being done was to kind of put a barrier in.  So that there’s a barrier before you get to a politician. 

Andy Coulson

But it’s only, it’s only…

Jo Rickards

It’s closing it down rather than opening it up. 

Andy Coulson

But it’s only a barrier if it’s, if it’s useful, right.  It will only be a barrier if it, if it can hold back the tide.  I think that’s a terribly difficult thing to do at the moment.  There are so many different stakeholders, so many different agendas, so many different people now.  The thing is just leaking on such an epic scale that it’s going to be very difficult then to kind of pull it back together.  But it could be possible and if you’re able to use that device to say, ‘This is… these are the facts and everything else is noise’ that would be a massive achievement. 

Jo Rickards

And the future for you is back to very much the day job, a bit less of podcasting, more of looking after clients. 

Andy Coulson

Podcasting’s pretty efficient actually, it’s one conversation a week. 

Jo Rickards

Right. 

Andy Coulson

We’ll keep, we’re definitely going to keep that going but yeah, the day job is the main focus and my clients are dealing with the same challenges as everyone else is.  You know, how do you grow? How do you move forward at a time of such uncertainty? That’s essentially, that’s essentially you know, my job is to try and advise on that and help people kind of stay positive and move forward.  And it’s, as I said earlier it’s fascinating work but you know, certainty is the thing, right, that’s what everybody, that’s what everybody wants. 

Jo Rickards

We’ve got Brexit coming up. 

Andy Coulson

And there’s no, there’s no sign of certainty for quite some time. 

Jo Rickards

No.  No indeed.  Andy Coulson, thank you very much.  You’ve been a super guest. 

Andy Coulson

Well, thank you for having me. 

Jo Rickards

It’s been great.  Thank you. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

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