Andy Coulson knew details of the private life of the former Home Secretary David Blunkett, published in a story in the News of the World in 2004, had been obtained from hacked voicemails, the jury at the phone hacking trial has heard.
The former News International editor and Downing Street communications chief, told the jury at the Old Bailey that in 2004, the NotW’s chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck told him of voicemails that detailed a three-year affair between Mr Blunkett and the former publisher of the Spectator magazine, Kimberley Quinn.
Mr Coulson said he was initially “shocked” and angry about what he was being told, asking Thurlbeck: “what on earth are you doing?”.
Mr Blunkett, he told the jury, was regarded as a “friend” of the Murdoch-owned paper own and ordered the Thurlbeck-led investigation to stop. He said he regarded the accessing of voicemails as “a breach of privacy”.
Appeals from Thurlbeck, citing grounds of public interest and that a home secretary may have been “distracted” from his job by the publisher of a Tory-leaning publication, resulted in a rethink by Mr Coulson, the court heard.
Asked by his defence counsel, Timothy Langdale QC, about whether or not he had enquired where or how the voicemails had been acquired, Mr Coulson said he “assumed” this had “been done by Neville [Thurlbeck] himself. It was all coming from Neville.”
Mr Langdale asked Mr Coulson if the voicemails were played to him by Thurlbeck. “Yes, he did,” replied Mr Coulson, adding that he remembered a “declaration of love” by Mr Blunkett, along with a threat to make the relationship public.
“This was the first and only time voicemails were played to me,” Mr Coulson told the court.
The contents of the Blunkett voicemails, were, said Mr Coulson, discussed with an NI executive and with a lawyer. The lawyer, he said, had not examined the issue of illegality surrounding how the voicemails were obtained. The concern was Mr Blunkett’s privacy, the court was told.
Following the U-turn on the Blunkett investigation, Mr Coulson told the court that he decided he needed to stand up the story by travelling to Mr Blunkett’s Sheffield constituency home and putting the allegations of the affair directly to him in a face-to-face interview.
The accessing of his voicemails were not put to Mr Blunkett, Mr Coulson told the court. Although he initially planned to reveal this, Mr Coulson said he had changed his mind to minimise the risk of legal action against the NOTW. In retrospect, he told the court, this was “a mistake”.
The 2004 article on the Blunkett affair did not mention Mrs Quinn [then Kimberley Fortier].
However The Sun, the following day, did name her.
The court was told of text and calls between Mr Coulson and Mrs Brooks that took place after the NotW story appeared. Mr Coulson said there was no deal between himself and Mrs Brooks on the Blunkett-Quinn story.
Earlier in the trail’s proceedings the jury were told that Thurlbeck had pleaded guilty to hacking-related charges.
Mr Coulson, Mrs Brooks and five other are defendants in the trial. They are charged variously with conspiring to hack phones, bribing public officials and to pervert the course of justice. All the charges are denied.
The trial continues.