Andy Coulson once had an office right next to David Cameron in 10 Downing Street. Rupert Murdoch trusted him to run the News of the World. But tonight, Coulson is behind bars in Belmarsh prison.
The 46-year-old was sentenced to 18 months for conspiring to hack phones during a six-year period when he was deputy and then editor of the News International title.
The fall from grace of a man who stood alongside those who ran Britain and who ran one of the world’s largest media empires was acknowledged by the judge, Mr Justice Saunders. He said it was because of the “respect” that Coulson, and other journalists at the NOTW also handed prison sentences, “that they were able to get away with this criminal conduct for so long.”
Three former news editors had pleaded guilty before the start of the eight-month long hacking trail, were also sentenced. Two of them – Greg Miskiw and Neville Thurlbeck – were jailed for six months. James Weatherup, who the judge accepted had been “less involved” , was handed a four-month suspended sentence.
The newspaper’s specialist hacker, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, was described by the judge as “truly the lucky one”. Already jailed over hacking in 2007, Mulcaire received a six-month suspended sentence.
Saunders said Coulson had to shoulder the major share of blame for the hacking crimes at the NOTW, saying: “he knew about it; he encouraged it, when he should have stopped it.”
He added that while Coulson may not have started the illegal practice, “there is ample evidence it increased enormously while he was editor”.
For 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister there will be enormous embarrassment that a former director of communications, given access to classified documents, who operated at the heart of Government, is now in a prison surrounded by category A offenders and terrorists.
In Scotland for a rally to boost the union’s credentials, Mr Cameron said the jail sentence for his former lieutenant showed that “no-one is above the law”. He said it was “right that justice should be done”.
Coulson is expected to remain at Belmarsh for only a short time, before being transferred to an open prison. Although Coulson could technically be out in less than nine months because he is classified as a non-violent offender, other remaining legal issues may yet cloud that forecast.
After the jury in the hacking trial failed to reach a majority verdict on the charges against Coulson and former NOTW royal editor Clive Goodman, relating to the sale of royal telephone directories, the Crown Prosecution Service announced they would be seeking a retrial.
Coulson also faces imminent perjury charges in Scotland connected to the trial of the former Scottish socialist politician Tommy Sheridan.
Coulson arrived at the Old Bailey earlier than usual. The timing made little difference. Hoards of photographers swarmed across the small entrance to the Central Criminal Court. His wife, Eloise, thoughout his side for most of the last eight months, did not attend.
Behind the glass-panelled dock in court 12, the five men facing sentence sat next to each other. But they were flanked by individuals not seen at any time during the trial – three large security guards; the first clear hint that someone was “going down”.
Opening his sentencing remarks the judge said that an “important matter” for him was the amount of phone hacking that went on for the benefit of the NOTW. He said hacking may have started in April 2002 when Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, and continued till 2006 when Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested. The judge noted that Mulcaire had complained he “couldn’t cope” anymore with the target he was told to hack.
Saunders said that those who hacked knew it was “morally wrong” and noted that the defendants claimed not to have realised they were involved in a crime. He said “ignorance of the law is no defence” and added “it is the duty of senior journalists to know the law”.
On the Dowler hacking, where the NOTW delayed telling police what they knew, Saunders said: “that was unforgiveable and could only… have happened with the knowledge of the person editing the paper that week, Andy Coulson.”
The judge rejected Mulcaire’s mitigation plea that he hacked the missing schoolgirl’s phone because he was trying to assist the police, stating "that is incapable of belief”.
In parts of his sentencing remarks, the judge appeared to accept that Coulson, a young editor, was under corporate pressure, and had a personal ambition to succeed.
Phone hacking, he noted, was used to maintain a “competitive edge”.
Saunders however said that as a consequence between 2003 and 2006, the right to privacy at the NOTW “counted for little”.
In 2001 Miskiw was at the helm of the NOTW’s investigations unit. Miskiw’s guilty plea, like Thurlbeck and Weatherup, didn’t come at the first opportunity. The judge said his good character “counted for very little”. He said the sentencing starting point for Miskiw was 12 months, reflecting his senior position and the amount of hacking he was involved in. It was reduced to reflect the “great deal of money saved” by his guilty plea. He was given six months’ imprisonment.
Weatherup was convinced by Coulson in 2004 to return to the NOTW. The judge said he accepted that Weatherup was “less involved”. The starting point for sentencing was eight months, reduced because of the trial’s delay. He was given a four-month suspended sentence.
The private investigator was NOTW’s go-to hacker. He was jailed in 2007 on hacking charges. The judge called Mulcaire “the lucky one” and said it would be wrong to send him back to prison, adding it wasn’t Mulcaire’s fault a full investigation failed to happen in 2007. Given a six-month suspended sentence.
Along with Weatherup, also given 200 hours community service.
Thurlbeck worked at the NOTW for 21 years. He became synonymous with the hacking scandal when details of a 2005 “For Neville” email offered evidence of voicemail transcripts, destroying the long-held company line of a “single rogue reporter”.
He “tasked” Mulcaire to hack Milly Dowler’s phone. In mitigation, both Thurlbeck and Weatherup spoke of the involvement of “other people at a higher level” inside the NOTW – the first time they had said anything. The judge said Thurlbeck might have lectured on the need for press reform, but this “has the appearance of regret for the consequences … of getting caught, rather than remorse”. Same reasons for sentence as Miskiw: six months.