Call for inquiry into Murdoch payments to Coulson


THE UK Electoral Commission is being asked to investigate whether Rupert Murdoch’s News International payments to Andy Coulson after he started working for the UK Conservative party may have broken the law.

Tom Watson, a Labour MP and a member of the House of Commons culture committee, said he wanted the Electoral Commission to investigate whether the payments and benefits – which reportedly included private health insurance and a company car – should have been declared because they amounted to a political donation.

MPs on the committee are also angry because the reports appear to contradict evidence given to it by Mr Coulson himself. The former News of the Worldeditor, who worked as the UK Conservative prime minister David Cameron’s communications chief from July 2007 until January this year (Mr Cameron became prime minister in May 2010), is expected to face further questioning from the committee about the payments.

On Monday night, the BBC’s Robert Peston said Mr Coulson had received several hundred thousand pounds from News International after he started working for Conservative party.

Mr Coulson was known to have received a payoff after he resigned from the News of the Worldin January 2007 following the conviction of journalist Clive Goodman and investigator Glenn Mulcaire for phone hacking.

But Mr Peston said Mr Coulson received his severance pay in instalments, and that he continued receiving money from News International until the end of 2007. Mr Peston also said Mr Coulson continued to receive his News International work benefits, such as healthcare, for three years and that he kept his company car.

The report casts doubt on the reliability of the evidence that Mr Coulson gave to the culture committee in 2009. Mr Coulson, who at the time was working for the Conservative party on a reported salary of £275,000 – roughly half what he was thought to have been earning at the News of the World– said he did not have any “secondary income”.

Mr Watson asked: “So your sole income was News International and then your sole income was the Conservative party?” Mr Coulson replied: “Yes.” Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief executive, appeared to confirm this when she gave evidence to the committee in July. Asked if the company had “subsidised” Mr Coulson’s salary after he left the News of the World, she said: “That’s not true.”

Yesterday, John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP who chairs the culture committee, said Mr Coulson and News International should have been more open with the committee about the nature of this arrangement. “As I understand it, these were staggered payments from a severance package. So, arguably, that’s just delayed pay,” Mr Whittingdale said.

“But if it is also true that Coulson was provided with a car and health insurance, then I would have expected him to have made that clear. And I would have expected News International to have made that clear when we asked them about it.” The committee is not meeting until September, but Mr Whittingdale said it may decide to seek further clarification on these matters from Mr Coulson and News International.

Mr Watson said yesterday the committee would have to establish whether it had been “misled”. But he said that the Electoral Commission also had to establish whether the payments and benefits constituted donations to the Conservative party that should have been declared.

In July, the Conservatives denied Mr Coulson was paid by News International while he was working for the party or the government. – (Guardianservice)