David Cameron’s former spin doctor Andy Coulson gave an assured account of himself before the Leveson inquiry into press standards – he certainly avoided giving any incriminating answers about the way the coalition government dealt with News Corporation’s controversial bid for full control of BSkyB.
Coulson did admit that he when he became the Downing Street director of communications in May 2010 he overlooked mentioning his own potential conflict of interest – in holding News Corporation stock options worth £40,000 – but he insisted he had no involvement in discussions over the aborted take-over bid.
Unlike Rupert and James Murdoch when offering their evidence to the inquiry, Coulson avoided making comments or asides and he stood loyally by the Prime Minister (who had give him a “second chance”) and by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne who had recommended him for a job with the Conservative Party after his resignation from the editorship of the News of the World.
It seemed the harder Robert Jay QC, the inquiry counsel, tried to lead Coulson into offering fresh insights – even when backed up by Lord Justice Leveson – the easier it became for the former spin doctor to close down potentially incriminating lines of inquiry.
During an evidence session lasting for two and a half hours, Coulson’s repeated refrains were a variation of the same themes: “No, I don’t recall any discussions...I am not sure what I knew which day...No I don’t know what he was thinking...” and so it went on.
Coulson’s appearance before the Leveson Inquiry (10.5.2012) was always likely to have been relatively restrained in view of his arrest – and possibility of charges – as a result of the investigations by the Metropolitan Police into illegal phone hacking at the News of the World and corrupt payments to public officials.
Because so much was off limits due to the fear that Coulson might be asked questions which would prejudice future prosecutions, Robert Jay kept strictly to the events leading up to the 2010 general election and the first ten months of the coalition government before Coulson’s second resignation in January 2011.
Coulson seemed determined, whatever the line of questioning, to remain positive, almost upbeat. He had “thoroughly enjoyed” working for Rupert Murdoch who had been “warm and supportive” during his time at News International.
He said the News of the World’s decision to back Tony Blair in the 2005 general election reflected the paper’s view that although it was not “wildly enthusiastic”, the interests of its readers would be best served by Blair’s re-election.
When it came to David Cameron’s election as Conservative Party leader in 2005, he had not been the paper’s explicit choice and he disagreed that the News International was already moving towards supporting the Conservatives; it was the News of the World which came up with headline about Cameron having said it was time to “hug a hoodie” which was hardly helpful.
Equally the News of the World’s headline about the George Osborne – “Top Tory, coke and hooker” – was hardly “career advancing” for the future Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Coulson said he was approached by Osborne in March 2007 about the possibility of becoming the Conservatives’ director of communications and after meeting David Cameron, although he did so with a “degree of reluctance” he took the job because it offered him the chance to do something “completely different.”
He had been running campaigns as editor and felt he had been in tune with the News of the World’s readership and he found the route from journalism to politics was attractive. “I was intrigued and after conversations with Osborne and Cameron I decided this was something I wanted to do.”
In reply to Jay’s question as to whether Cameron asked him about jailing of the paper’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman for phone hacking, Coulson replied: “Yes, I was able to repeat what I have said publicly, that I knew nothing about the Clive Goodman and Glen Mulcaire case in terms of what they did.”
Coulson insisted that he had always made clear that his News International background should not have been seen as some sort of guarantee that he could deliver endorsement for the Conservatives by the Sun and the News of the World; nor had he advised Cameron to become close to Rebekah Brooks, who became the News International chief executive – that friendship resulted from a family connection between Cameron and Charlie Brooks who lived in the Prime Minister’s constituency.
Coulson agreed that Rupert Murdoch would most certainly have been involved in the Sun’s decision to abandon its support for Gordon Brown at the 2009 Labour Party conference but he personally would have preferred the Sun to have announced the switch at the Conservative Party conference.
When Coulson was reminded that James Murdoch had told Cameron in advance that the Sun would return to supporting the Conservatives, Coulson told the judge that he remained sceptical. “I was cautious....I said wait and see.” After Coulson repeated that he was “instinctively cautious” the judge interjected to say “You are always cautious” – a reminder if one was needed of Coulson’s ability to avoid giving illuminating answers.
Jay asked whether Cameron’s admission in July 2011 that he had got too close to News International was an opinion the Prime Minister had expressed while Coulson was in Downing Street: “No I don’t remember him saying that”. Was Cameron disgruntled about spending time with newspaper editors? Coulson: “He frequently said that.” Was there a perception about getting too close to one newspaper group? Coulson: “No I don’t recall that...I don’t know what his thinking was.”
When Jay asked if by getting “too close” the Prime Minister meant there was an “unhealthy” relationship over the BSkyB negotiations, Coulson would have none of it. “I look at it from the perspective of whether there was an improper conversation or a deal done...a grand conspiracy. I never saw a conversation or was party to a conversation which was inappropriate in that way.”
Coulson said that he had “overlooked” his share options when he was appointed the Downing Street director of communications and had not discussed them with the civil service; he had only discovered recently they were worth £40,000. As to his security vetting, although at a lower level than some of his predecessors, it did allow him “occasional access to top secret documents and sensitive meetings.” But this was a matter for the government and his security vetting. Was it raised again by Downing Street after the Guardian re-opened the phone hacking story in May 2009: “Not that I recall.”
Coulson’s gift of understatement and his determined not to cause problems for the Prime Minister was illustrated all too clearly when the judge asked again if he could remember any conversation with any politician which suggested that his own previous connections with News International might be a consideration in the BSkyB bid: “No, not that I remember Sir.”
The judge tried again when Coulson confirmed that Murdoch went into 10 Downing Street by the backdoor to meet Cameron after the 2010 general election. “Is there a list of front door people, back door people or people who just stand outside the front door of 10 Downing Street?” Coulson: “I don’t know.” Leveson sighed: “Sorry I have to try to keep myself entertained.”