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David Cameron caught in fallout from Andy Coulson and the hacking scandal

With Andy Coulson's downfall over media phone hacking all but sealed, attention turns to David Cameron, who ignored warnings about his hiring

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 11:48pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 1:29am
 

Long before the jury returned its verdict, evidence disclosed in the trial at London's Old Bailey criminal court devastated Andy Coulson's reputation, with suggestions that the former editor had misled the British prime minister and Parliament about his knowledge of crime at newspaper the News of the World.

His conviction on Tuesday for conspiring to hack phones will add a possible prison sentence to the ruin of his career.

The ease with which he was able to fool the Conservative Party leadership will also add weight to questions about David Cameron's judgment in hiring the former News of the World editor without checking his background - and about the reliability of evidence the prime minister gave under oath to the Leveson inquiry into press reporting tactics.

Tell me about Andy Coulson. Is he a good person to work with?
GEORGE OSBORNE

Britain's epic tabloid phone-hacking trial ended with a hung jury on two final counts - and a judge's rebuke for Cameron, whose televised comments about the case while the trial was still under way almost scuttled proceedings.

On Wednesday opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband called Cameron's actions negligence, and claimed he "will always be remembered as the first ever occupant of his office who brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street".

Cameron again apologised for appointing Coulson, saying it was the wrong decision.

Coulson's conviction was also unwelcome for Rupert Murdoch, his former employer, and raises the possibility of a corporate prosecution for Murdoch's media behemoth, News Corp.

Detectives want to question Murdoch "under caution" - meaning as a potential suspect.

When Coulson was hired as media adviser to Cameron, then the leader of the Conservative Party, in late May 2007, he gave assurances to him and to George Osborne, now finance minister, that there was nothing more that they needed to know about the scandal, that it 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 that 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 Conservative 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 Murdoch.

In July 2009, after The Guardian disclosed the true scale of the hacking scandal, Coulson repeated his assurances to Cameron and to the 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 left by David Blunkett when he was home secretary. Those voicemails had been the basis for a story Coulson published about Blunkett's sex life. He did not report Thurlbeck to the police, nor did he take any disciplinary action against him.

The court heard that three years earlier, in September 2006, after Goodman's arrest, Coulson was told privately that police had identified more than 100 victims of hacking by the paper'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 2,000-page file that 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 - 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 broke open in the summer of 2011, Burton Copeland wrote to the committee to say that the firm "was not instructed to carry out an investigation into 'phone hacking' at the News of the World".

Under cross-examination, Coulson conceded that if he had told Cameron he knew about the hacking of Blunkett "it may be that the job would not have been offered to me".

At the Leveson inquiry, Robert Jay QC questioned Cameron about his decision to hire Coulson and, in particular, about his own reaction to The Guardian's first phone-hacking story in July 2009. Jay suggested he had done nothing more than rely on Coulson's word.

Cameron replied: "I was reliant on his word but I was also reliant on the fact that the Press Complaints Commission (PPC) had accepted his word, the select committee had accepted his word, the police had accepted his word, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had accepted his word." This was profoundly misleading evidence from a prime minister speaking on oath.

When The Guardian published its story about a News Group payout to soccer players' union chief Gordon Taylor over hacking of his phone, not one of those agencies had heard from Coulson. The PCC had conducted its 2007 inquiry without interviewing him. The select committee had not yet questioned him and, when it did, it 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 it received the police files, it 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 revealed that at the very same time that Cameron and Osborne were interviewing Coulson for his new job, Coulson knew Goodman had been released from prison and was confronting News International executives with serious allegations about the scale of phone hacking - and of Coulson's own awareness of it.

On March 2, 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 senior journalists including Coulson. News International agreed to hold a hearing for Goodman.

On March 15, Osborne met Coulson for a drink to raise the possibility of hiring him as the Conservative Party's director of communications.

Osborne told Leveson 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. Soon afterwards, according to evidence at the Leveson inquiry, Coulson discussed the meeting with Rebekah Brooks, who said that this was the first she had heard of the possible job offer.

On March 19, according to a reliable source, a News International executive contacted Coulson to tell him about Goodman's allegations and to ask him to consent to having his e-mail archive searched. Coulson, according to this source, said he would have to take legal advice before consenting.

A senior Conservative source says that Coulson told them nothing of this. On March 20, News executives met Goodman, who claimed 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 Mulcaire had been "screwing phones" and that Coulson had banned all mention of this at 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.

Osborne told Leveson that towards the end of March he had spoken to 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 senior Conservatives had asked Brooks for her opinion more than once.

Cameron told Leveson that at the end of March, he had asked for assurances about the hacking scandal and that similar questions were put to Coulson at a follow-up meeting with party officials.

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 the police, who already had evidence that hacking had involved more victims than admitted and that other journalists working for Coulson may have been involved.

Apart from asking Coulson and Brooks, according to one senior Conservative who was involved, the only other step the Conservatives took was to ask Hinton, who failed to alert them that Goodman had been appealing and making serious allegations.

At the end of May, Cameron phoned Coulson, who was on holiday in Cornwall, and offered him the job.

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