Cameron criticised for poor judgment over Coulson
British prime minister apologises after former adviser's conviction for phone hacking
Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson leaves the Old Bailey in London yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Will Oliver
Rebekah and Charlie Brooks leave the Old Bailey in London yesterday after being cleared of all charges. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images
Some questions cannot be answered. Asked if he felt “human sympathy” for Andy Coulson just hours after Coulson was convicted in the Old Bailey, David Cameron walked away from a TV camera crew.
However, Mr Cameron will not be able to quickly leave the legacy of Coulson, the former News of the World editor now facing jail for conspiracy to intercept voicemails.
His successor at the helm of the paper, Rebekah Brooks, was found not-guilty of conspiracy to hack voicemails, two counts of conspiracy to pay public officials and two counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Her husband Charlie Brooks, secretary Cheryl Carter and News International’s former head of security Mark Hanna were cleared of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice while ex-News of the World executive Stuart Kuttner was cleared of conspiracy to hack voicemails.
Coulson stood down eight years ago as editor of the paper after reporter Clive Goodman’s conviction for intercepting phone messages, saying that he deeply regretted the offences had “happened on my watch”.
“I also feel strongly that when the News of the World calls those in public life to account on behalf of its readers, it must have its own house in order,” said Coulson, who was regarded as tough and ruthlessly efficient.
Months later, however, he was given the opportunity for a rebirth, becoming the Conservatives’ director of communications – a decision principally made by Mr Cameron and George Osborne.
Coulson, who was paid nearly £500,000 a year, proved his worth, playing a key role in building ties between Mr Cameron and Fleet Street heavyweights as the Conservatives prepared for the 2010 election.
In July 2009, however, The Guardian revealed that the mobile telephones of 3,000 people had been hacked by News International journalists mostly, but not exclusively, by the now-defunct News of the World.
One of the alleged victims, Labour’s John Prescott, wrote to Mr Cameron, warning him that Coulson was not fit to hold office if the allegations were true. Mr Prescott demanded a prompt reply but never got one.
Mr Cameron never investigated Coulson’s promises to him, while top-level security vetting – a decision for civil servants, not Mr Cameron – was not started until just months before he left Number 10 and was not completed by the time he quit.
Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne issued a speedy apology yesterday: “I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson. I did so on the basis of undertakings I was given by him about phone hacking and those turned out not to be the case.
“I always said that if they turned out to be wrong, I would make a full and frank apology and I do that today.
“I am extremely sorry that I employed him. It was the wrong decision and I’m very clear about that.”
But Mr Cameron perhaps commented too soon because, after the lunch break, his remarks led trial judge Mr Justice Saunders to urge restraint by the public and politicians, saying verdicts were still outstanding.
The speed of Mr Cameron’s apology was not, however, accidental but rather deliberately prepared in the hope that if quickly delivered it could help prevent a head of steam building up about his judgment in the affair.
For many, Mr Cameron’s apology is not good enough. The argument is that there was plenty of information circulating around Westminster which, though it would never have stood up in court, should have made Mr Cameron wary.
Labour’s Ed Miliband, who has taken a battering from the right-wing press in recent weeks, was unusually savage in his response, accusing Mr Cameron of having “brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street. David Cameron was warned about Andy Coulson. The evidence mounted up against Andy Coulson. David Cameron must have had his suspicions about Andy Coulson and yet he refused to act,” he said.
For Mr Miliband and for others, Mr Cameron’s slowness to act was not because of any desire to give Coulson a second chance, but because he was a vital bridge to publisher Rupert Murdoch.
“I believe this isn’t just a serious error of judgment. This taints David Cameron’s government because we now know that he put his relationship with Rupert Murdoch ahead of doing the right thing,” he said.
Last night, the jury, which has spent over a week deliberately on their verdicts, left the Old Bailey having yet to decide on charges that Coulson and Clive Goodman bought an internal Buckingham Palace phone directory from a police officer.
Meanwhile, Ms Brooks – who was nicknamed “Her Majesty” by some of her legal team – and her husband left the Old Bailey at lunchtime, free to return to their home in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, which is also Mr Cameron’s home base.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson declared his support, illustrating the strength of her connections, saying he was pleased, while Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson was first to the couple’s home to offer congratulations.
From Mr Cameron’s viewpoint, however, Ms Brooks is the political equivalent of Banquo’s ghost, an unwelcome reminder of his connections with Mr Murdoch.
From a brutal political viewpoint, she is even more of a problem for him out of jail.