This was the FT’s live blog on the Leveson Inquiry on May 10th, 2012. Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor and head of communications at Number 10, was testifying. Written by Kiran Stacey (KS) and Jim Pickard (JP).
4.34pm KS: The Andy Coulson session has now wrapped up. Ben Fenton has written this story for the FT. He writes:
Andy Coulson, the former tabloid editor who became David Cameron’s spokesman, rejected on Thursday the idea that politicians in Downing Street had become too close to the press.
These are the other interesting details to emerge from today’s session:
- Coulson admitted he “may have” seen Top Secret documents and definitely did attend National Security Council meetings, even though he did not have top-level security clearance.
- Coulson had shares worth around £40,000 in News Corp while working for Number 10. This story was broken by the Independent on Sunday, whose editor was summoned to Leveson today to explain how they had got the story.
- David Cameron did not ask Coulson about his knowledge of the phone hacking activites of Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman even after the Guardian revealed the practice was more widespread than originally claimed.
This is Ben Fenton’s conclusion:
Andy Coulson was never going to be asked the toughest questions about his time at Number 10 because they would have conflicted with his status as a man on police bail.
But while he played a dead bat to everything, with a litany of “I don’t believes…I don’t recalls…” there were still some difficult moments in his verbal and written evidence.
We know he saw top secret material without supervision, which he shouldn’t have done, that he held News Corp shares but didn’t imagine there was any possible conflict of interest and that David Cameron did not ask him for further assurances that he knew nothing about the phone hacking offences at his paper even after The Guardian, in July
2009, produced evidence that it was widespread.
4.29pm JP: Driscoll clearing following the proceedings.
4.24pm JP: Just back from the afternoon Downing Street briefing. Spokesman says that Coulson had SC security clearance but in late 2010 he was poised to get the higher level “developed vetting”. This was because there had been a terrorist scare at East Midlands airport and the government realised their head of communications did not have access to get involved with dealing with the incident.
Separately, Downing St was asked about Coulson’s shares in his old employer. The oblique answer was that all special advisers are civil servants, and these are bound by the civil service code which says that they must declare any shareholding through which they can “further” themselves through their official post. It’s not clear whether this would have applied to Coulson’s post and News Corporation or not.
4.15pm KS: Coulson is being asked about Matt Driscoll, the NoW employee Coulson was accused of bullying when he was editor. He says he wished he could have given evidence at Driscoll’s tribunal. This has veered from politically sensitive material to evidence about general Fleet Street culture.
4pm KS: We’re now looking in detail as to whether Number 10 came under pressure, or put anyone else under pressure, to approve the News Corp bid for BSkyB. Coulson says he “does not recall” speaking to Jeremy Hunt, the minister in charge of the decision, about it.
3.59pm KS: Jay asks Coulson whether he considered topping up his income from the Tories with private donations. Coulson says he didn’t.
3.55pm KS: Coulson says he “doesn’t recall” any conversations between him and Fred Michel, or anyone else at News Corp, about a bid from the company to take over BSkyB. He says he thinks it was a surprise when the bid was announced.
3.43pm KS: Here are a couple of tweets apparently from ex-civil servants suggesting Coulson attending regular NSC meetings and seeing Top Secret documents would be highly unusual:
3.39pm KS: First joke from Coulson shows he’s loosening up. To Jay’s suggestion that Dominic Mohan was not a real power player at News Int indicated Coulson replies: “You seem to have a disparaging view of ex-showbiz journalists.”
3.29pm KS: One interesting point – Coulson says Cameron did not ask him any more about the actions of Mulcaire and Goodman after it was revealed by the Guardian that many others had been paid off for having had their phones hacked.
3.26pm KS: Coulson is back on the witness stand. He is being asked about his security clearance. He “may have” seen Top Secret documents and attended meetings of the National Security Council, but says his clearance level allowed him to do so. The only time it became an issue was when he wasn’t able to go to a meeting about a security incident at Midlands Airport.
3.20pm KS: Coulson’s written evidence has now been published here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Witness-Statement-of-Andy-Coulson.pdf
3.13pm KS: The media is already changing as a result of the hacking scandal and its aftermath, says Coulson. But asked if he thinks politicians got too close to News International, as David Cameron has said, he answers that he didn’t see any “inappropriate” conversations. And Leveson calls timeout for a break.
3pm KS: Coulson explains how influencing media worked from inside Number 10. He says you could not rely on a call to an editor to ensure anything, but you hoped to get a good hearing when you had something positive to say if you already had a good relationship with an editor.
2.56pm JP: AC was asked if Ed Lewellyn and Francis Maude, two senior Tory figures, asked him about hacking at NoW and the Glenn Mulcaire case. “I don’t remember but it is possible.” He was then asked if he had a conversation with Cameron about what he knew: “I told him I didn’t know anything of what they did.”
2.53pm KS: Some of Andy Coulson’s nuggets so far:
On conversations with Rupert Murdoch: “I can’t remember specifics…”
On coverage of David Cameron: “I coined the phrase ‘hug a hoodie’ and that wasn’t particularly helpful to him.”
On Rupert Murdoch’s feelings towards him “Warm and supportive… [but also] that of an employer to an employee.”
On entering politics: “I went into it fairly reticently.”
2.48pm JP: Coulson says he was not particularly eager to take the job of chief Tory spin doctor. He had not been a political journalist. “I went into it with a degree of reluctance. I wasn’t thinking about politics at all. I gave outline what party needed to do.”
2.42pm JP: On departing the NoW Coulson had commiserations from both Blair and Brown but not necessarily Cameron. Osborne met Coulson in May 2007 and asked him if he wanted to join the team.
2.36pm JP: A frisson of interest that Coulson’s severance agreement from News International is amid the Leveson evidence. Which should be published here later today. He resigned on the basis that it would be a consensual agreement. The agreement, says Jay, included an agreement not to ever say anything that would impugn or damage the character of his former employers.
2.32pm KS: We’re now moving onto the details of a story in the NotW and the Sunday Mirror about George Osborne, drugs and prostitutes. Jay points out that the paper’s editorial was pretty friendly to Osborne, at a time when it was becoming clear he was likely to become shadow chancellor. The point of the questioning is clear: did you temper your coverage because of your political preferences and desire to stay close to up-and-coming politicians? Coulson replies that if this is an attempt to find favourable coverage to the Tories, “this is a pretty poor example”.
2.21pm KS: In 2006, Coulson met Gordon Brown, who was chancellor at the time. At that meeting, Brown told him Brooks would be promoted at News International and he would become the editor of the Sun. Coulson believes this was an attempt by the future prime minister to show him how close he was to Rupert Murdoch. But he says it didn’t work: “I didn’t become the editor of the Sun. So as predictions go, it was pretty hopeless,” he adds.
2.21pm KS: Coulson says neither he nor the NotW supported any candidate in the Tory leadership election in 2005. But he points out that William Hague, a high-profile columnist, supported David Cameron. But he insists his paper’s coverage was not overly-helpful to the new party leader, pointing out they coined the term “hug a hoodie”, which “was not especially helpful to him”.
2.18pm KS: Coulson says Murdoch was “warm and supportive” towards him, but is volunteering no additional information. The only revelation so far is that he was offered the editorship of the Mirror but turned it down.
2.12pm KS: Jay is focusing on contacts he had with Rupert Murdoch while he was editing the NotW. Coulson says he had sporadic contact with the media boss, and any time he is asked about specifics he uses the well-worn line of “I can’t recall details of conversations.” It doesn’t look like he’s going to give anything away unless he is forced to.There was a problem with the blakbirdpie shortcode
2pm KS: Coulson’s testimony starts with a disclosure that he may be limited in what he can say because of an ongiong legal investigation into what he knew about phone hacking while editor of the News of the World. That is one reason Coulson may be able to avoid saying anything very damaging for him or the government.
1.45pm JP: So should we expect Coulson to rock the boat in terms of disclosures about life as an adviser to the prime minister; the relationship between politicians and the press; or the inner workings of the coalition? Not necessarily. Those who have worked with the former Downing St communications head describe a man who verges on the taciturn, preferring to listen than to talk. He has also reportedly kept a diary of his years with the Tory party and may want to hold back some of his more interesting anecdotes.
Inquiry lawyers will not be allowed to ask Coulson any questions that could prejudice the police investigation into phone hacking or any future trials.
He also owes some loyalty to Cameron, who defended him consistently over several years. Even when Coulson resigned in January 2011, Cameron defended him, saying there was a danger that he was “effectively being punished twice for the same offence” (having already resigned as NoW editor). He has repeatedly said that Coulson did a “very good” job for him. And he invited him to Chequers, his country retreat, a few months after his resignation.
Cameron said last July that he had hired Coulson on the basis of “assurances” that he knew nothing about hacking while at NoW. If it turned out he had lied then it would be a different matter: “But I do believe, Mr Speaker, that we must stick to the principle that you are innocent until you are proven guilty,” he told the Commons.
All eyes will be on the Leveson Inquiry website to see if there will be a release of fresh documents from Coulson.
First up this morning was Viscount Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail & General Trust. Among his insights were his comments about a weekend at Chequers. He said: “It would have been rude to bring up business“.
1.30pm JP: Andy Coulson, former head of communications for David Cameron, will today be in front of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics in one of its most keenly-awaited appearances. We will be live-blogging here for most of the day.
Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World in 2007 after his royal reporter Clive Goodman was jailed for illegally accessing the voicemail of three Buckingham Palace officials. He said that although he did not know about a so-called “rogue reporter” who had been found guilty of phone hacking at his paper, he would take responsibility.
Only a few months later Cameron subsequently hired the former tabloid editor as his head of press in opposition. After the general election victory of May 2010 the onetime showbusiness reporter continued at the prime minister’s side at the helm of the Downing Street communications machine.
He resigned from January 2011, saying that renewed coverage of the phone-hacking scandal was making it too difficult for him to do his job. Last July he was arrested and released on bail over allegations of corruption and phone hacking.
Meanwhile former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks is due to give evidence on Friday. She was NoW editor in 2002 when voicemails on murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone were intercepted.