PM is said to have sought no fresh assurances from former News of the World editor as phone-hacking revelations emerged
The prime minister’s judgment moved to centre stage at the Leveson inquiry after Andy Coulson, the former No 10 director of communications, revealed that Cameron and his staff sought no fresh assurances about Coulson’s conduct as editor of the News Of the World after the Guardian published stories in 2009 suggesting that phone hacking was rife on his watch at the tabloid.
Coulson also revived questions about why he was not subjected to the same level of security vetting as his predecessors when he told the inquiry he may have had unsupervised access to top-secret documents while working in Downing Street between May 2010 and January 2011.
Coulson’s evidence came as the Leveson inquiry began its six-week module examining the relationships between press and politicians, which will eventually see Cameron, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown give evidence before the judge.
Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World in 2007 saying he took “ultimate responsibility” for what had happened, even though he had no knowledge of the phone hacking that led to the jailing of Clive Goodman, the paper’s former royal editor, and the private investigator hired by the tabloid, Glenn Mulcaire. Cameron has insisted he appointed Coulson believing he deserved a second chance.
In his first public appearance since his resignation from No 10 and his subsequent arrest, Coulson was not cross-examined about his knowledge of phone hacking at the paper to avoid any risk of prejudice to any future trial.
But he revealed that the only time Cameron asked him about the court case that had led to Goodman’s conviction was at the time of his initial appointment in May 2007. “I was able to repeat what I said publicly, that I knew nothing about the Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire case in terms of what they did,” Coulson said. Cameron told him he had conducted some background security checks on him. Coulson’s severance terms from News International, owners of News of the World, were also not discussed.
In evidence on Thursday, Coulson disclosed that after the Guardian ran a front-page story in November 2009 suggesting that phone hacking was widespread at the paper Cameron made no fresh inquiries. Asked whether he was questioned by Cameron or anyone else after that date about Goodman and Mulcaire, Coulson said: “Not that I can recall.”
By the time Coulson entered Downing Street in May 2010, the Guardian had run more than 90 articles about illegal activities at the News of the World under his editorship, 14 of them on the front page, and Cameron had been warned by a number of political colleagues against hiring him as the No 10 press secretary.
As the Guardian and other newspapers published a succession of disclosures about illegal practices at the News of the World under Coulson, Cameron repeatedly defended him, stating as late as January 2011: “Obviously, when he was editor of the News of the World, bad things happened at that newspaper. I think there is a danger at the moment that he is effectively being punished twice for the same offence.”
No 10 refused to explain the prime minister’s apparently incurious attitude, saying he would explain his approach when he gives evidence to the inquiry himself, probably in June.
Coulson also told the inquiry that he had unsupervised access to papers marked “top secret” and attended meetings of the national security council even though he had only been through basic security vetting. Unsupervised access to top secret material requires the higher “developed vetting” level of clearance held by most of Coulson’s predecessors. No 10 defended its decision not to make Coulson subject to developed vetting on his appointment as government communications director following the 2010 election, saying there had been a conscious decision made by the civil service that fewer special advisers should have access to the intelligence material.
No 10 said a decision was taken to “DV” Coulson only after a terrorist incident at East Midlands airport revealed the extent to which he needed regular access to intelligence material to conduct his job. The six-month vetting procedure had not been completed by the time he resigned.
Coulson disclosed that he retained £40,000-worth of News Corp shares while working at No 10. “Since resigning from my role as Downing Street communications director, I have given thought to one issue which I now accept could have raised the potential for conflict. Whilst I didn’t consider my holding of this stock to represent any kind of conflict of interest, in retrospect I wish I had paid more attention to it,” he said in his witness statement.
“I was never asked about any share or stock holdings and … it never occurred to me that there could be a conflict of interest.”
No 10 said he would have been asked to fill out a form when he was appointed stating whether he had relevant shares that might represent a conflict of interest.
Coulson said he had no involvement in the government’s response to News Corp’s bid to buy BSkyB, but the Conservatives have already faced calls for an independent inquiry after a series of emails between the News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel and a special adviser to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, were released to the Leveson inquiry.
Cameron has refused to launch his own inquiry into whether Hunt breached the ministerial code saying he will wait to see what evidence emerges from the Leveson inquiry.
But Leveson in the strongest terms yet said he was not conducting an inquiry into the ministerial code, and could not be arbiter of Hunt’s fate.
Leveson ruled: “I will not be making a judgment on whether there has been a breach. That is simply not my job, and I have no intention of going outside the terms of reference that have been set for me.”
In what may prove to be indication of the Leveson inquiry’s initial thinking, Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, asked whether the revelations that almost daily updates were being offered by Hunt’s office to News Corp on its BSkyB takeover bid could be evidence of an “over-cosy relationship”.
“The issue is whether a minister of the crown exercising a quasi-judicial role may have failed to fulfil it because he has demonstrated through his actions that he was too close to News Corporation.”
Jay said the “least serious finding” Leveson could make was that Hunt was biased, but the “most serious” was that Hunt was prepared expressly to authorise his special adviser to conduct what in effect were covert communications with the lobbyist or, put another way, provide a running commentary on the bid.