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Six months of setbacks ends reign of high-flying Coulson

When Bob Geldof stood up at the Park Lane Hotel in London and launched an angry tirade against newspaper editors at the British Press Awards less than two years ago, Andy Coulson could not have cared less.

For the young editor of the News of the World and his team were having the night of their lives. The paper was named Newspaper of the Year and its exposé of David Beckham's secret affair with Rebecca Loos won it the coveted prize of Scoop of the Year. "Our job's a pretty simple one, that's to break great stories," said Coulson.

It turned out to be the career pinnacle for a journalist who was in his mid-thirties when he moved to the editor's chair of the title that likes to be known as the biggest-selling English language newspaper in the world.

An Essex lad, he had cut his teeth on the Basildon Evening Echo before joining The Sun in 1988, where he was deputy to Piers Morgan on the paper's Bizarre showbiz column. He became, and has remained, close friends with Morgan and with another young Wapping-based reporter, Rebekah Wade, from whom he inherited the top job at the News of the World in 2003, when she went to take up her current role of editor of The Sun.

Soon after that night at the Park Lane Hotel, Coulson was explaining to the trade magazine Press Gazette why his paper deserved the accolades, which came in spite of sneering from rivals at the methods it deployed.

"I've got nothing to be ashamed of, and this goes for everyone on the News of the World, in what we do for a living," said Coulson. "The readers are the judges, that's the most important thing. And I think we should be proud of what we do."

He went on to praise various members of his staff, including the head of the investigations team, Mazher Mahmood. The editor, who had seen his friend Morgan forced to resign from the editorship of the Daily Mirror in 2004 after it published faked photographs, said of his own title: "It's blindingly obvious that the paper stands or falls by its revelations."

When Rebekah Wade also found herself in trouble, arrested over a domestic violence incident in November 2005, Coulson was the person she called from the police station and who helped secure her release. Nonetheless, Wade's difficulties at The Sun led to press commentators tipping Coulson as her likely successor. Though a former showbiz reporter, Coulson is shy about speaking in public and is regarded as serious-minded. Except for a brief period at the Daily Mail, he has devoted himself to Rupert Murdoch's News International.

As recently as last May, he was still on a roll when he collected a hat-trick of prizes at the London Press Club Awards, including being named Sunday newspaper of the year, for its string of scoops, including the exposé of the former Home Secretary David Blunkett's affair with the publisher Kimberly Quinn.

Then in barely six months, everything unravelled. First Mazher Mahmood, the famous Fake Sheikh, who had put more people behind bars than any other British journalist, suffered a setback when a jury acquitted three men he had accused of being part of a "red mercury terror plot". Then the Scottish Socialist Party politician Tommy Sheridan won an unprecedented £200,000 defamation claim against the title over sex claims. Circulation slipped, down by 3.7 per cent on the previous year.

And then Clive Goodman, the paper's long-standing royal editor, who had been arrested in the summer on phone tapping charges, was yesterday jailed for four months. Coulson, who turns 39 today, decided that now he did have something to be ashamed of and last night he stepped down.