The phone hacking trial, now deep in to its 6th month, saw the case for the defence of Andy Coulson begin on April 14th. Coulson, the Prime Minister’s former communications chief and, before that, editor of the News of the World, is on trial along with five others including Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International and former editor of the News of the World and the Sun. Coulson is charged with conspiracy to hack phones between 2000 and 2006 and conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public place.
Proceedings began with Coulson’s rapid journalistic development. Questioned by his barrister, Timothy Langdale QC, Coulson told the court of how he ‘fell in love’ with journalism and aged 18 joined the Basildon Evening Echo. Just two years later he was at the Sun, where, by 1998, aged 30, he had risen to position of associate editor.
Much of the questioning and responses by Coulson gave insight into the workings of the tabloid press in the last 15 years or so. The first day alone saw the jury learn of the importance of contacts, the influence of PR people and the use of private investigators. Coulson told the court that in respect of his relationship with celebrities and PR ‘for me the most important thing for me during my time at the Sun was to get the story…. and maintain the relationship’. As far as private investigators were concerned, he answered ‘’not that I can remember’ when asked if he himself ever used a private investigator during his time at Sun bizarre column.
There was reference to the affair of Brooks and Coulson. They began working together in 1998 when Brooks became deputy editor of the Sun and when Brooks became editor of the News of the World in 2000, Coulson became her deputy. When she left to edit the Sun in 2003, Coulson became editor of the News of the World, where he remained until 2007. During this time Coulson said, the affair ‘was not by any means continual‘ and that there were ‘very long periods’ in which they remained friends and colleagues.
Despite the Sun and the News of the World being ‘sister’ publications. It was rare that they would share ‘exclusive or sensitive stories’ ‘unless on a very rare occasion’, when there was a ‘pre-determined deal to share between papers’ such as a ‘buy-up’ with a celebrity.
The court also heard of Coulson’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch. The jury was told that Murdoch was ‘always present’ at board meetings and that he would visit the News of the World two or three times a year. Coulson said Murdoch, ‘would call on a Saturday evening every now and then’ and would usually discuss ‘the big picture in terms of news’. He was ‘very interested in news and politics’.
As the week progressed, the finer points of editing a national newspaper were explored by Langdale. The jury was shown a floor plan of the News of the World offices which included a ‘secret office’ where high profile stories were kept hidden lest they become leaked to competing titles. The court was told of Coulson’s role as editor: he wouldn’t have read every word and was principally concerned with the front pages and bigger stories, he said. The atmosphere in the office on a Saturday night before publication was described as “frenetic” with staff striving to meet deadlines for printing and distribution. Each story would be checked by sub-editors and production staff and, if required, by the legal team.
Staff at the News of the World were given briefings on the ‘dark arts’ of journalism which Coulson described as ‘investigative techniques’. These included utilising surveillance, hidden cameras, recording devices and following people. Asked about the phrase “turning a mobile”, Coulson said: ‘turning a mobile’ or ‘spinning a mobile’ – these are phrases that I heard during my time as an editor. To me it meant getting an address from a phone number or getting a phone number from an address, or vice versa. And I believed there were perfectly legal ways of doing that.’ There were regrets from Coulson about how this process worked and how stories were investigated. He told the court that this was ‘an area I certainly should have applied my mind to more’. ‘I should have looked at it more, interrogated it more,‘ he added.
As far as phone hacking was concerned, Coulson told the court that he was ‘aware of it in very vague terms, it was in the ether, people gossiped about it.’ He denied that he was party to or involved with phone hacking and that in 2002 he did not know that intercepting voice mails broke the law. For Coulson: ‘It was intrusive and lazy journalism,” he said adding: ‘the people I worked with were never interested in phone hacking.’
In respect of the Milly Dowler phone hacking allegations, Coulson denied knowing anything about the hacking of her voicemail and that he did not remember discussing the story with his then boss, Brooks. Asked by his barrister, ‘were you ever party to or in agreement with phone hacking at the News of the World?’ In a clear voice, Coulson replied: ‘No.’
Before the court rose for the Easter recess, Coulson told the court that he still didn’t know phone hacking was an illegal act at the time of the David Blunkett voicemails in August 2004 though he did listen to the former Home Secretary’s private messages at that time. He told the court that, ‘this was the first and the only time voicemail messages were played to me’.
Day four of Coulson’s time in the witness box began with him answering questions about former News of the World reporter, Dan Evans. Earlier in the trial, Evans claimed that it was ‘obvious’ that he was employed by Coulson for his skills in phone hacking. Referring to a meeting in 2004 Langdale asked whether “anything [was] said by Dan Evans about or concerning phone hacking?’ Coulson replied, ‘not that I can remember.’ Coulson also denied the claims made by Evans that in 2005 he listened to a message left on actor Sienna Miller’s phone, prior to the News of the World publishing a story about her romance with fellow actor, Daniel Craig. Asked by Langdale if this had taken place, Coulson replied: ‘no, it did not’.
There was much that Coulson did not know about or could not remember. Asked by Langdale if he knew or suspected that reporter Clive Goodman (the News of the World’s royal editor facing two counts of conspiring to make corrupt payments to public officials ) had hired Glenn Mulcaire (jailed in January 2007 after he admitted unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages) to intercept messages, Coulson replied: ‘absolutely not’. Indeed, the court was told, it was not until the day of Goodman’s arrest in August 2006 that Coulson had heard of Mulcaire at all. Goodman’s claim that Coulson knew about Mulcaire was, ‘a lie’.
Despite this, the court heard that when Goodman and Mulcaire were sentenced to prison on 26th January 2007 for hacking royal voicemails, Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World. ‘I felt it was the right thing to do as I was the boss,’ Coulson told the court.
As the defence case rested, the Old Bailey heard that on 9 July 2007 Coulson was appointed director of communications for the Conservative party only to resign from his position in January 2011. Explaining this resignation from Downing Street, Coulson said that given the, ‘long history of press coverage… I couldn’t do the job I was employed to do’.
On April 25th the cross examination of Coulson by lead prosecutor, Anthony Edis QC began. Edis took Coulson back to the Milly Dowler case and the News of the World story that the murdered schoolgirl was alive and looking for a job. The story originally appeared on page 9 of the paper but in later editions appeared on page 30 with quotes obtained from Dowler’s voicemail removed. Coulson rejected the accusation that there was a ‘process of hiding the true source’ in relation to the story and stated that story’s prominent position in early editions was a ‘mistake’. It was moved to redraw the balance of the paper. Asked by Edis why verbatim quotations from voicemails were left out Coulson stated that he couldn’t remember and didn’t know why.
Returning to David Blunkett’s hacked voicemails in 2004, Edis questioned Coulson’s decision not to ask reporter Neville Thurlbeck how he had obtained the information. Denying that he already knew from whence they came, Coulson conceded his error: ‘I asked no questions, I accept that, it was a failure on my part.’
Edis then managed to draw out of Coulson the admission that he was lying to Blunkett later when, on the record, the pair met to discuss whether or not the News of the World would publish the details of Blunkett’s love affair. At this meeting Coulson did not tell Blunkett that the private details had come from hacking. He had been, he admitted, ‘disingenuous’. Repeatedly, Edis asked, ‘so you lied to him?’ Eventually, the judge Justice Saunders intervened: ‘Were you telling a deliberate untruth? Yes or no? ’After a moment’s hesitation, Coulson said ‘Yes’.
Edis’ questioning frequently touched on the editorship of the News of the World and how much knowledge and control Coulson had. Referring to environment at the paper where there was routine payment of police officers and the hacking of leading politician’s phones it was put to the defendant that he didn’t want to know where these stories had come from. To which Coulson replied: ‘I don’t think I did’. Edis then asked Coulson: ‘Is the explanation that you didn’t care less or that you were slapdash and careless?’ to which Coulson replied, ‘I accept I was careless but not that I didn’t care less.’
As the cross examination ended, Edis focussed on Coulson’s resignation as Government Director of Information in 2011. The timing of the resignation was to do with the increasing difficulty he had doing his job, the defendant said. Not according to Edis who stated, ‘You knew the truth was going to come out that you were involved in a conspiracy to hack phones’. Coulson denied this and the court adjourned.
Footnote: This piece is again in debt to the excellent moment by moment coverage of the trial provided by the tweets of@peterjukes and narrative from ‘Inside the Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson Trial’ by James Doleman at the Drum