UK PM's ex-aide Coulson jailed in Murdoch hacking case

5th July 2014, Comments 0 comments

Andy Coulson, the former editor of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World and one-time spin doctor to British Prime Minister David Cameron, was jailed for 18 months on Friday for his role in the phone-hacking scandal that doomed the tabloid.

The sentence passed by a judge at the Old Bailey court in London caps a stunning fall from grace for 46-year-old Coulson, who once enjoyed access to the heights of the British establishment.

Four former colleagues at the now-defunct News of the World received shorter sentences for intercepting the mobile phone voicemails of thousands of royals, celebrities and politicians in what prosecutors called a "criminal enterprise".

Cameron -- who was forced to make a public apology after his former communications director Coulson was convicted last week at the end of a marathon eight-month trial -- said Friday that the sentence showed "no one is above the law".

Murdoch shut the News of the World in July 2011 amid public outrage after it emerged that Britain's biggest-selling paper had illegally accessed the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The delay in telling police the contents until the tabloid realised it was not going to find her was "unforgivable", judge John Saunders said.

He said Coulson was receiving the longest jail term due to his senior role at the weekly paper.

"Mr Coulson has to take the major share of the blame for phone hacking at the News of the World. He knew about it, he encouraged it when he should have stopped it," the judge said.

Coulson felt it necessary to use phone hacking to maintain the News of the World's "competitive edge", Saunders added.

- No defence in law -

Former News of the World news editor Greg Miskiw and chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck were each sentenced to six months' imprisonment for phone hacking.

Journalist James Weatherup and private detective Glenn Mulcaire received suspended sentences of four and six months respectively and were both ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

All four had previously pleaded guilty.

Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Murdoch's British newspaper arm and editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003, was cleared of all charges at the trial, along with her husband and three other people.

The BBC said it understood Coulson had been taken to the top-security Belmarsh prison in southeast London to start his sentence.

Coulson was editor of the News of the World from 2003 to 2007, when he resigned after Mulcaire and former royal editor Clive Goodman were jailed in the first ever phone-hacking prosecutions.

He always insisted he knew nothing of their activities and was hired months later by Cameron, whose Conservative Party was then in opposition, as his communications chief.

The party entered government in May 2010 but Coulson resigned from his post in January 2011 when the hacking scandal blew up again.

During mitigation hearings this week ahead of the sentencing, Coulson blamed the tabloid's lawyers for failing to tell him that phone-hacking was illegal.

But the judge said this was no defence in law.

"The evidence is clear that there was a very great deal of phone hacking while Andy Coulson was editor," he said.

- 'Serious questions' for Cameron -

The trial itself ranged from the scandalous to the arcane, hearing evidence that Brooks and married father-of-three Coulson had an affair, before delving into months of hearings on the workings of the newspaper.

Brooks said last week that she felt "vindicated" and that her thoughts were with colleagues still facing legal action.

But the verdicts heaped embarrassment on Cameron.

He reacted to the sentence in a statement on Friday, saying: "What it says is that it's right that justice should be done, and that no one is above the law, as I've always said."

Last week he admitted it was the "wrong decision" to hire Coulson, although he denied ignoring warnings about the journalist's activities at the News of the World.

Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband said the case threw up "serious questions" about Cameron.

"This is a verdict on Andy Coulson's criminal behaviour but it is also a verdict on David Cameron's judgement," he said.

A spokeswoman for Cameron said she was not aware of any contact between the prime minister and Coulson since his conviction.

The prosecution has asked for £750,000 ($1.3 million, 940,000 euros) in legal costs from Coulson and the others.

Coulson and Goodman also face a retrial on charges of paying a police officer for royal telephone directories, after the jury in the original trial failed to reach a verdict.

The phone-hacking scandal prompted a major judge-led inquiry on the reform of Britain's notoriously raucous press.

© 2014 AFP

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