Coulson’s crimes – and the case against the Prime Minister

The Guardian, June 24 2014

Long before the jury returned their verdict, evidence disclosed at the Old Bailey trial had devastated Andy Coulson’s reputation, clearly suggesting that he had misled the Prime Minister and Parliament about his knowledge of crime at the News of the World.

His conviction yesterday will add a prison sentence to the ruin of his career. And the ease with which he was able to fool the Conservative leadership will add weight to questions about the Prime Minister’s judgement in hiring the former News of the World editor without checking his background – and about the reliability of evidence which Cameron himself gave on oath to the Leveson inquiry.

When Coulson was hired as the Tory leader’s media adviser, in late May 2007, he gave assurances to David Cameron and to George Osborne that there was nothing more that they needed to know about the scandal, which had ended with the jailing four months earlier of Clive Goodman as a ‘rogue reporter’ who had hacked royal phones without the knowledge of anybody else at the News of the World.

Detailed evidence which directly challenged that claim was already in police hands at that time. A clear hint was available on the public record in comments made by the judge who had sentenced Goodman. But, according to senior Tory officials, Cameron made no attempt to seek a police briefing or to check the court record, even when he became Prime Minister and took Coulson into Downing Street. Cameron has been accused of employing Coulson in spite of his past in order to build a bridge to Rupert Murdoch.

In July 2009, after the Guardian first disclosed the true scale of the hacking scandal, Coulson repeated his assurances to Cameron and to the House of Commons media select committee. When the committee asked him if, during his 20-year career as a journalist, he had ever had any suspicion of any kind of illegal activity, he replied: “It has been in the ether of the newspaper world for some time but, no, I have never had any involvement in it at all.”

Coulson’s assurances of ignorance were contradicted by evidence disclosed during the seven-month trial:

*In a bombshell moment in the witness box, he admitted that in August 2004, his chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, had played him hacked voicemails which had been left by David Blunkett when he was Home Secretary and that those voicemails had been the basis for a story which Coulson then published about Blunkett’s sex life. He did not report Thurlbeck to the police, nor did he take any disciplinary action against him. Speaking to the select committee in July 2009, however, Coulson said: “I never condoned the use of phone hacking and nor do I have any recollection of incidences where phone hacking took place.”

*Separately, the jury were shown email exchanges in which Coulson approved payments which Clive Goodman was requesting for ‘one of our royal policemen’ and to ‘one of our palace cops’ and in which he discussed a previous payment to ‘a Kensington Palace copper’. In one message, Goodman warned him that ‘if they’re discovered selling stuff to us, they end up on criminal charges, as could we.’ At trial, both Coulson and Goodman told the jury that the payments were not really for police officers but for legitimate contacts. However, when the select committee asked if he was aware of any serving police officer being paid during his time at the News of the World, Coulson said simply: “Not to my knowledge.”

*The court heard that three years earlier, in September 2006, following the arrest of Clive Goodman, Coulson was told privately that police had identified more than 100 victims of hacking by the News of the World’s private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. When Goodman was sentenced, the court was told of only eight victims. Giving evidence to the select committee, Coulson said nothing about his knowledge of other victims.

*The court also heard that in November 2006, Coulson read through the 2000-page file which the Crown Prosecution Service had prepared for the Goodman case, which included evidence suggesting that three of Coulson’s senior journalists may have been involved in commissioning the hacking. Two of them – Neville Thurlbeck and Greg Miskiw – have since pleaded guilty. Coulson told the select committee: “I am absolutely sure that Clive’s case was a very unfortunate rogue case.”

*In justifying his position, Coulson claimed to the committee that following Goodman’s arrest, he had instructed an outside law firm to conduct an inquiry: “I brought in Burton Copeland, an independent firm of solicitors, to carry out an investigation. We opened up the files as much as we could. There was nothing that they asked for that they were not given.” After the hacking scandal finally broke open in the summer of 2011, Burton Copeland wrote to the committee to say that their firm “was not instructed to carry out an investigation into ‘phone hacking’ at the News of the World.”

Under cross-examination at the Old Bailey trial, Coulson conceded that if he had told David Cameron that he knew about the hacking of David Blunkett “it may be that the job would not have been offered to me.”

At the Leveson inquiry, in June 2012, Robert Jay QC questioned the Prime Minister about his decision to hire Coulson and, in particular, about his reaction to the Guardian’s first phone-hacking story in July 2009. Cameron replied that Coulson had repeated his assurance that he had known nothing about it. Jay suggested that the Conservative leader had done nothing more than to rely on Coulson’s word.

In a key passage of evidence, Cameron replied: “I was reliant on his word but I was also reliant on the fact that the Press Complaints Commission had accepted his word, the select committee had accepted his word, the police had accepted his word, the Crown Prosecution Service had accepted his word.” This was profoundly misleading evidence from a Prime Minister speaking on oath.

When the Guardian published the Gordon Taylor story, not one of those agencies had heard a word from Andy Coulson. The PCC notoriously had conducted its inquiry in 2007 without interviewing him. The select committee had not yet questioned him and, when they did, they accused Coulson and other News of the World witnesses of “collective amnesia” and “deliberate obfuscation.” The police had not yet interviewed him as a suspect or a witness and, when they did, they sent files to the CPS. The CPS had no form of evidence at all from Coulson in July 2009 and, when they received the police files, they charged him with conspiring to intercept voicemails and to commit misconduct in public office.

But it was earlier, between March and May 2007, that the most important events took place. Guardian inquiries reveal that at the very same time that Cameron and Osborne were interviewing Coulson for his new job, Coulson knew that Clive Goodman had been released from prison and was confronting News International executives with serious allegations of the scale of phone hacking – and of Coulson’s own awareness of it.

This began on March 2 2007, when Goodman wrote to the chief executive of News International, Les Hinton, appealing against Hinton’s decision to sack him and claiming that hacking had been taking place at the paper ‘with the full knowledge and support’ of named senior journalists including Coulson. News International agreed to hold a hearing for Goodman and it was while this was being prepared that on the evening of Thursday March 15 George Osborne met Coulson for a drink to raise the possibility of hiring him as the Conservative Party’s director of communications.

Osborne told the Leveson inquiry that he had asked Coulson “whether there was more in the phone-hacking story that was going to come out that was not already public that we needed to know about.” Coulson, he said, assured him that there was nothing. On his way back from this meeting, Osborne added, he called Cameron from his car to say that he was impressed by Coulson, who was willing to consider the job. Soon afterwards, according to evidence at the Leveson inquiry, Coulson reported on the meeting to Rebekah Brooks, who said later that this was the first she had heard of the possible job offer.

Four days later, on Monday March 19, according to one reliable source, a News International executive contacted Coulson to tell him about Goodman’s allegations and to ask him to consent to having his email archive searched. Coulson, according to this source, said he would have to take legal advice before consenting and went on to ask for a copy of the letter in which Goodman made his allegations. A senior Conservative source says that Coulson told them nothing of this.

On the following day, March 20, News International executives held their first hearing with Goodman who added considerable detail to his allegations, claiming that over the previous two years the News of the World had not published a single news story that had not involved hacking or some other form of access to confidential communications. He claimed that Coulson was aware that Glenn Mulcaire had been ‘screwing phones’ and that Coulson had banned all mention of this at internal daily conferences. On March 21, the executives interviewed a senior journalist who was still working at the paper who said that Coulson had been aware that certain stories should not be discussed at conference.

George Osborne told Leveson that towards the end of March he had spoken to Rebekah Brooks: “Tell me about Andy Coulson. Tell me, is he a good person? Is he a good person to work with? What do you think of him.” There is no record of her warning Osborne that she too knew directly from the police that they had identified more than 100 hacking victims. Osborne recalled: “As far as I can remember she thought it was a good decision because she thought he was an effective operator.” Coulson himself seemed to think that senior Tories had asked Brooks for her opinion more than once, telling Leveson: “I’m not suggesting for a moment that the conversations with Rebekah were not in any way influential.” It has been reported that Brooks urged Cameron not to hire the previous front-runner for the job, the former BBC correspondent Guto Harri.

At the end of March, Coulson went to David Cameron’s office in the Norman Shaw building opposite Parliament. Cameron told Leveson that during this meeting he had asked for his own assurances about the hacking scandal and that similar questions were put to Coulson at a follow-up meeting with the Conservative party’s then chairman, Francis Maude, and Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn.

During April and May, Cameron considered four other candidates for the job, including Guto Hari, and Goodman had a second hearing with News International executives – on May 10 at a hotel in Kingston-upon-Thames at which he repeated his allegations. The Guardian has been told that Coulson’s successor as News of the World, Colin Myler, agreed to interview Coulson about the allegations, although it is not clear whether that happened.

Coulson told the Leveson inquiry that during this period, the Conservative party had conducted ‘security checks’ on him. This did not include obtaining information from Scotland Yard, who already had evidence not only that the hacking had involved many more victims than had been admitted in public but also that other journalists working for Coulson may have been involved. The Conservative checks did not even include obtaining a transcript of the hearing at which Clive Goodman was sentenced – a public document – which recorded the judge saying that Mulcaire had hacked not only for Goodman but also “for others at News International.”

Apart from asking Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, according to one senior Conservative who was involved, the only other step which the Conservatives took was to ask Les Hinton, the chief executive of News International, who chose not to alert them to the fact that Clive Goodman had been appealing and making serious allegations. However, another source with direct knowledge of the affair says that it was Cameron personally who spoke to Hinton; and that the object of the call was not to check on Coulson’s history but simply to tell Hinton that he had decided to appoint him. This source says that Cameron told Hinton he believed that the hacking affair was over and that Hinton agreed. At the end of May, Cameron telephoned Coulson, who was on holiday in Cornwall, and offered him the job. Coulson accepted and took up the post in early July.

One senior Conservative claims that the plan was for Coulson to quit if Cameron won an election but that Cameron changed his mind when he became Prime Minister in May 2010. By that time, the Guardian had run detailed stories about crime under Coulson’s editorship at the News of the World and the Guardian’s then deputy editor, Ian Katz, had privately warned Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llwellyn, and his director of strategy, Steve Hilton, of Coulson’s vulnerability to the scandal. The editor, Alan Rusbridger, had also warned the LibDem leader Nick Clegg. It has since emerged that when Coulson moved into Downing Street, he was vetted at a lower level than that applied to his predecessors. Cameron told Leveson: “The key thing is that I asked for assurances, I got them, and that was the basis on which I employed him.”

Eight months later, on January 14 2011, as News International prepared to hand Scotland Yard three emails which were to trigger a new inquiry into the hacking, Rebekah Brooks called Coulson to an urgent breakfast meeting in a London hotel. Seven days later, he resigned. On January 26, Scotland Yard launched Operation Weeting. Two months later, Coulson was the Prime Minister’s guest at Chequers. In July, he was arrested by Operation Weeting.

In that same month, with the scandal erupting into the political world, David Cameron told the House of Commons Liaison Committee that he personally had allowed himself to get too close to media proprietors. The Leveson inquiry heard that during his first 15 months in Downing Street, he had 26 meetings with Rupert Murdoch or his executives. Both Cameron and Osborne told the Leveson inquiry that Coulson’s connections with Murdoch were not a factor in hiring him. They had chosen him, they said, because he was ‘a very effective individual.’

It is important to note that when Coulson gave assurances to Cameron and Osborne and when he gave evidence to the select committee, he had not taken an oath to tell the truth. Coulson is now due to face trial on a charge that he lied on oath in December 2010 at the trial in Glasgow of the radical Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan. Coulson has denied the charge, and a Scottish jury will be asked to reach their own verdict based on the evidence which is put before them in a trial which is due to take place later this year.