10 May 2012

Coulson at ‘top secret’ security meetings without clearance

Andy Coulson attended meetings of the National Security Council as David Cameron’s director of communications when he was not vetted and “may have” had unsupervised access to top secret documents.

In a reserved and cautious appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, Mr Coulson described how he was appointed to the job after meeting the current Chancellor George Osborne for a drink at a hotel in May 2007, four months after he had resigned as editor of the News of the World when his royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were jailed for phone hacking.

When it became clear that Mr Coulson intended to take the Tories up on their offer of a job as communications director, Mr Cameron asked him about phone hacking, he said. Mr Coulson, who last year arrested over the scandal, told Mr Cameron that he “knew nothing about Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire and what they did”. Aside from that, he said, the Tory leader had failed to seek any further assurances even after fresh allegations suggesting his involvement began to emerge.

He told the inquiry that when he arrived at Downing Street he did not ask what level his clearance was, and had assumed it would be the appropriate level.

Robert Jay, counsel to the inquiry, asked Mr Coulson: “Did you have unsupervised access to meetings designated top secret or above?”

Mr Coulson replied: “Yes.”

Mr Jay continued: “Did you ever attend meetings of the National Security Council?”

Mr Coulson told the inquiry that he had. “I went to the meetings I was invited to and got on with my job,” he had earlier said in a statement to the inquiry.

News Corp shares

The former tabloid editor also told the inquiry that he had £40,000 worth of shares in News Corp – which went on to bid for full ownership of BSkyB – while he was employed as director of communications for the Tories.

In his statement, he said that he “now” accepts that this “could have raised the potential for conflict”.

But he denied that he was involved in the subsequent BSkyB bid by News Corp, telling the inquiry that he had talked to the company’s lobbyist, Fred Michel, at his office in Number 10, but that he could not recall the matter arising.

Although Mr Coulson’s evidence veered little from his statement, it went some way towards revealing his relationships with past and present prime ministers.

Tony Blair personally contacted him when he was prime minister to offer his commiserations when he had to step down from the News of the World, he said, as did Gordon Brown.

Andy Coulson: from Basildon council house to Number 10
1986 Joins Basildon Evening Echo aged 18 as a junior reporter

1988 Piers Morgan hires him for his first Fleet Street job working on The Sun's Bizarre showbiz column

2000 Becomes deputy editor of the News of the World under Rebekah Wade (now Brooks)

2003 Replaces Wade as editor of NOTW

2007 Resigns from NOTW when royal editor, Clive Goodman, is jailed for phone hacking, saying he was "unaware" of the practice.

2007 Headhunted by now Chancellor George Osborne to become the Conservative Party's director of communications on a reported salary of £485,000

2010 Joins David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, becoming the government's director of communications, on £140,000

2011 Resigns saying ongoing claims surrounding phone hacking saga made it difficult for him to give the "110 per cent" he needed

2011 Arrested and bailed by the Metropolitan Police in connection with phone hacking and payments to police officers

Number 10

In his statement, Mr Coulson revealed that once he was working as the prime minister’s communications chief, he had attempted to shape Mr Cameron’s reputation with the public by regularly inviting journalists to informal gatherings at Number 10. Mr Cameron was initially “reluctant”, he said.

“I took the view that it was important that journalists saw David Cameron in a relaxed and informal mode, as well as at work,” his statement said.

“I felt it was important to show his authentic life away from work, not least as the Labour Party was working hard to convince the public that he spent his private moments lounging around a mansion, in top hat and tails, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar. This was an important myth to dispel.”

Mr Coulson resigned as the prime minister’s communications chief in January 2011, when he said he could no longer give “110 per cent” to the job because of the growing phone hacking scandal, in which he became more and more implicated.

He told the inquiry that although Rupert Murdoch phoned him on Saturday nights when he was editor of the News of the World, they would rarely discuss politics or which party the paper should support.

But Mr Coulson, who admitted he was more naturally Conservative in his political leanings, denied that he was hired by the Tories because of his connections to News International but rather it was because he had been an editor.

Faced with repeated questioning from Robert Jay, counsel for the inquiry, Mr Coulson said: “I do remember explaining that my News International background – and this was not suggested by Mr Osborne or Mr Cameron – should not therefore be seen as a guarantee of support of either of those [The Sun or the News of the World] papers.”