Former editor of the News of the World Andy Coulson tells the hacking trial he was “shocked” to hear voicemails of David Blunkett “declaring his love” for a married woman.
Andy Coulson told the trial at the Old Bailey he called a halt to the story in 2004 but changed his mind and confronted Mr Blunkett about it.
He was alerted to the story by former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck – who phoned him on holiday in Italy. Mr Thurlbeck said he was sure the story was right because he had heard a voicemail, Mr Coulson said.
I remember a message which David Blunkett sent which was effectively declaring his love. He was also saying he had considered making the relationship public.
Mr Coulson told the court: “I was on my way to the airport to collect my brother who was coming to stay with us. I was lost, I remember that, I parked up on the side of the road to take the call.
“Neville told me he had a tip that David Blunkett was having an affair… He said that he believed the story was true because he heard some voicemails.
“I was shocked because he told me he had heard some voicemail messages. I was shocked that he was telling me this as well because it was in relation to David Blunkett, the home secretary.
“I was quite angry about it. I used reasonably colourful language, words to the effect ‘What in earth do you think you’re doing’.”
Mr Coulson said he told the reporter to stop the investigation: “My concern was it was an apparent breach of privacy and I was concerned also that this was involving somebody who I knew. He was somebody we were broadly supportive of.”
The court heard that in June 2004 – the month before – the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct was updated to include the banning of intercepting phone messages.
Mr Coulson had a meeting with Mr Thurlbeck, who put a case for the story by playing him some voicemails.
Mr Coulson said: “I remember a message which David Blunkett sent which was effectively declaring his love. He was also saying he had considered making the relationship public. There was a mention of terrorist arrests. I also had it in my mind there was a reference made to GCHQ.”
Mr Coulson said the more he listened, the more he started to think there was “some public interest justification” in the story but wanted time to think about it.
Asked where he thought the reporter had got the voicemail he said: “The conversation did not go into detail about that. If I made an assumption, it was Neville had done this himself. It was all coming from Neville.”
“I remained shocked – this was the first and only time a voicemail had been played to me.”
Mr Coulson said he took legal advice about the privacy aspect of the story and concluded the story still needed to be stood up – but decided that Mr Blunkett was more likely to do so if the Notw did not name his lover.
The court then heard a tape recording of Mr Coulson’s meeting with Mr Blunkett in his Sheffield constituency from Friday August 13 2004.
Mr Blunkett is heard to repeatedly protest that he had a policy of keeping his private life private: “You are asking me to say yes, I have had a relationship with a married woman?” Coulson replies: “Yes, and nothing more.”
Mr Blunkett, who had been divorced for 14 years at the time, said: “You are putting me in a position where my longstanding precept of keeping my private life private is a disadvantage.
“Whatever I say breaches my precept of keeping my private life private.” The court has previously heard that convicted hacker Glenn Mulcaire was involved in intercepting the voicemails and tapes were recovered from a safe in the office of News International, the trial has previously heard.
Mr Coulson, 46, of Charing, Kent, is charged with conspiring to hack phones with Rebekah Brooks and former managing editor Stuart Kuttner, and conspiring with former royal editor Clive Goodman to commit misconduct in a public office. All seven defendants deny charges against them.