David Cameron's communications chief, Andy Coulson, yesterday admitted that "things went badly wrong" under his editorship of the News of the World – claiming he himself had been a victim of phone hacking.
Giving evidence to MPs investigating allegations that members of his staff had routinely tapped into phones of politicians and celebrities Mr Coulson admitted that mistakes had been made under his watch at the paper, during which his royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed along with a private investigator for illegally tapping phones. Mr Coulson resigned in 2007 as a result.
However, Mr Coulson said claims that the practice of phone hacking had been widespread in his newsroom were untrue. "During that time I neither condoned the use of phone hacking and nor do I have any recollection of instances when phone hacking took place," he said.
Mr Coulson also revealed that he had been warned by Scotland Yard that there was "strong evidence" that his own phone had been hacked. "I received a call from Scotland Yard the Friday before last, from a detective superintendent, to be told there is strong evidence to suggest that my phone was hacked," he said.
He admitted, however, that the supervision of payments had not been adequate. "Things went badly wrong under my editorship of the News of the World, I deeply regret it," Mr Coulson said. "When I resigned I gave up a 20-year career with News International and everything that I had worked towards since I was 18. I have to accept that mistakes were made and I have to accept that the system could have been better."
All four News of the World representatives appearing before the Commons Culture Committee yesterday said they had been completely unaware of the £12,300 that Mr Goodman had paid to a private investigator, Glen Mulcaire, for help in tapping the phones of royal aides. "I wasn't able to micro-manage every story and nor did I attempt to," Mr Coulson said. He added that the payments, which were made in cash, had been "unknown to me and concealed from the managing editor". Colin Myler, the current editor of the paper, revealed that he had now clamped down on cash payments, which had been slashed by as much as 89 per cent from the amount handed out under Mr Coulson's editorship.
Mr Coulson also denied any knowledge of the £700,000 out-of-court settlement handed to Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers Association, who was one of the victims of the phone hacking carried out by Mr Mulcaire. The settlement means that few details of the case against News International can be made public.
However, James Murdoch, the son of Rupert Murdoch and the executive chairman of News International, was dragged into the row after it emerged that he agreed that the payout should go ahead. "James Murdoch was apprised of the situation and agreed with our recommendation to settle," Mr Myler said. "It was an agreed collective decision."
Tory aides were confident last night that his appearance marked the end of the matter for Mr Coulson, who has become critical to Mr Cameron's operation. However, the committee threatened to bring the Tory leader's communications director back if more questions arise as a result of their inquiry into phone tapping.
News International was accused of coming "very close" to attempting to interfere with the inquiry after it demanded that one of the MPs sitting on the committee be removed. It had requested the removal of the Labour MP Tom Watson, as he is currently in dispute with The Sun, also owned by News International. During the proceedings, the paper's former managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, also asked for the Tory MP Philip Davies to be barred from asking questions. Mr Kuttner said that comments made by Mr Davies, suggesting that his resignation had been linked to the fresh accusations of phone hacking, indicated he had prejudged the matter. Both requests were turned down.
Awkward questions remained for Scotland Yard after Mr Myler confirmed that no other New of the World staff were even questioned during its investigation into the phone tapping scandal, raising questions over its refusal to reopen the inquiry.