Coulson faces uncomfortable day in court

PM's press chief may face questions about phone-hacking at Tommy Sheridan trial
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The Independent Online

For nearly four years, ever since he resigned from the News of the World, Andy Coulson has distanced himself from the scandal over the red-top's illegal phone tapping during his editorship.

Last year, he told MPs he knew nothing of the news-gathering techniques that saw his royal editor, Clive Goodman, and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire jailed when they were caught listening to the private phone messages of celebrities in attempts to provide his newspaper with stories.

Today the Prime Minister's communications supremo will face more questions over events under his stewardship at Rupert Murdoch's flagship newspaper – this time in Glasgow High Court.

Downing Street says that Mr Coulson has not been provided with any public funds or Government legal advice in connection with his court appearance.

His questioner will be Tommy Sheridan, the socialist firebrand politician. Mr Sheridan is defending himself against charges that he lied under oath during his successful defamation action against the News of the World for a story published during Mr Coulson's three-year tenure in the editor's chair.

Mr Sheridan was awarded £200,000 in damages after suing the newspaper, which had alleged in its Scottish edition that he visited a sex club in Manchester and committed adultery.

Mr Coulson will appear as a witness called by Mr Sheridan and answer questions without an advocate of his own.

During the course of the 10-week trial, the jury has been shown documents which, Mr Sheridan alleges, show that News of the World executives twice asked Mulcaire to help dig out confidential information which would assist in its investigation into his private life.

Among the documents were details of Mr Sheridan's home address, his mobile phone number, pin numbers and what was claimed to be details of his Vodafone account. There were also two notebook entries naming Mr Sheridan and dated July and September 2004 – around the time the first News of the World stories were being compiled.

Mulcaire is due to be cited as a witness at the trial next week.

During cross-examination by Mr Sheridan last month, Bob Bird, editor of the News of the World's Scottish edition, said neither he nor his staff had any knowledge of alleged intercepted phone messages from the former Celebrity Big Brother contestant although it had hired a private detective – not Mulcaire – to assist in the preparation of the story. In his evidence, Mr Bird described how, a week after the defamation trial ended, he had been summoned to a clandestine meeting by an anonymous informant who later turned out to be Mr Sheridan's best man, George McNeilage, claiming to prove the Scottish Socialist Party leader had lied in court. Mr Bird said he was ordered to undress to check he was not carrying a "wire" before being shown a video of Mr Sheridan allegedly confessing to the claims.

Mr McNeilage admitted he had been paid £200,000 by the newspaper for the secretly-filmed video footage. The editor also said that he had spoken to the police following the alleged discovery of a bug in Mr Sheridan's vehicle over which he denied any involvement.

Yesterday, as the trial resumed after the first of the defence witnesses had been delayed by the weather and illness, Rosemary Byrne, a retired teacher and former MSP, said she had attended a gathering of party colleagues in which Mr Sheridan is alleged to have admitted the sex claims against him, a claim he denies.

She said: "You denied that you had attended a sex club; you said that the allegations that had been floating around were untrue. One thing that you did say was that you had had an affair with Anvar Khan after you had come out of prison. I can't remember the dates but it was away back before you were married." She said Mr Sheridan left before the end of the meeting, which continued with discussion about whether it might be better for him to stand down as convener of the party.

Mr Sheridan and his wife Gail both deny the charges that they lied under oath at the civil jury trial in Edinburgh in 2006.

The case in question

At the heart of the allegations against Tommy Sheridan are the claim that he and Mrs Sheridan lied during the 2006 libel case against the News of the World over allegations that he had visited a sex club in Manchester and committed adultery.

Mr Sheridan was awarded £200,000 for defamation but, following the case, police began a criminal investigation which resulted in him being charged along with his wife. Mr Sheridan denies making false statements while Mrs Sheridan denies committing the same crime at the civil jury trial in Edinburgh.

The jury at Glasgow High Court has heard evidence from witnesses, including alleged former lovers, from within Mr Sheridan's SSP party. It is claimed he admitted visiting the club during a meeting of party members in 2004.