Hacking trial: Judge criticises Cameron's public apology after Coulson guilty verdict

The judge said he was "very concerned" by the PM's comments

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The Independent Online

The phone hacking trial judge has criticised the Prime Minister after he issued a hasty apology yesterday for employing Andy Coulson, when the former Number 10 spin doctor was found guilty of conspiring to hack phones at the News of the World.

Mr Justice Saunders said he was "very concerned" about the comments, saying David Cameron led the way in what he described as "open season" by immediately offering a public apology for hiring Coulson in 2007 while the jury were still deliberating charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.

In his apology, Mr Cameron had said: "I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson. I did so on the basis of undertakings I was given by him about phone hacking and those turned out not to be the case.

"I always said that if they turned out to be wrong, I would make a full and frank apology and I do that today.”

The judge said he asked the Prime Minister for an explanation for his comments and was told by his principal private secretary: “The Prime Minister was responding to the guilty verdict on hacking charges that had been delivered in open court.

“He did this in the light of the intense media coverage and understandable public interest. The Prime Minister was careful to make no further comment about any matters that might still be before the court.”

But Mr Justice Saunders said the PM had "missed the point" and revealed information the jury had not been told during the trial for legal reasons.

He said: "My sole concern is to ensure that justice is done. Politicians have other imperatives and I understand that. Whether the political imperative was such that statements could not await all the verdicts, I leave to others to judge."

The jury were "deep in an analytical discussion" on the evidence and they should be allowed to continue, he said: "We underrate juries, and particularly this one, at our peril."

Downing Street said Mr Cameron had taken "the best legal advice" before making his televised statement yesterday, but declined to say whether it had come from Attorney General Dominic Grieve, while Labour said Ed Miliband had been careful in his own televised statement not to raise issues of Coulson's character or the facts of the trial - other than to refer to the former Number 10 director of communications as a "criminal", a fact which had been established by the jury itself.

A senior Labour source said: "It seems to us that these are matters between the judge and the Prime Minister. We were responsible in our reaction to the Prime Minister's statement.”

The judge’s remarks came after Coulson's lawyer accused Mr Cameron, George Osborne and Mr Miliband of putting politics before justice and ignoring the directions of the judge to exercise restraint.

Timothy Langdale QC said: "This was an extraordinary situation where the ill-advised and premature intervention by the Prime Minister and others to avoid political damage or make political capital is almost impossible for the jury to ignore. It strikes at the heart of justice."

"It is astonishing, we say unprecedented, for a prime minister to make public comments of such a crucial juncture in trial proceeding."

The jury has since been discharged after failing to reach verdicts on two charges against Coulson and ex News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office by paying police officers for two royal directories. A decision on whether there will be a re-trial will be made on Monday.

Additional reporting by PA