The judge in the News Corp. (NWSA:US) phone-hacking case reprimanded Prime Minister David Cameron for making an apology for hiring former editor Andy Coulson, who’d been found guilty, while the jury was still considering some charges.
Cameron recorded a statement yesterday expressing regret for appointing Coulson as his director of communications in 2007. It was broadcast just over an hour after the former News of the World editor was convicted of phone hacking in a London court, and while the jury was deliberating on bribery charges against Coulson and a former News of the World reporter, on which they today failed to reach verdicts.
In a ruling today, Judge John Saunders said he wrote to Cameron last night asking why the premier had issued a statement before the trial had ended, something that risked breaching British contempt-of-court laws and causing the case to collapse. Cameron’s office replied to the judge that the premier had been “careful” in his comments.
“I am afraid that to an extent his explanation misses the point,” Saunders said. “He has now told the public and therefore the jury that he was given assurances by Mr. Coulson before he employed him which turned out to be untrue. The jury were not aware of that before and it is a matter which is capable of affecting Mr. Coulson’s credibility in their eyes.”
Cameron hired Coulson as head of communications for his Conservative Party in 2007 a few months after the journalist quit as editor of the News Corp. tabloid following a previous phone-hacking case. Coulson stayed on as the premier’s top press aide when the Tories won the 2010 election, before resigning in 2011 as reports of hacking at the News of the World mounted. The premier has said repeatedly he was assured by Coulson he hadn’t been involved in hacking.
Cameron’s office said today he’d received legal advice from Attorney General Dominic Grieve, the government’s chief law officer, before he made his broadcast.
Ken Clarke, a former chancellor of the exchequer who is now a minister without portfolio in Cameron’s government, earlier questioned whether the prime minister could have spoken to a lawyer before issuing his statement.
“It’s clear that nobody took legal advice,” he told the BBC. “It was unwise. They should have taken legal advice, but I doubt that would have crossed David’s mind.”
Saunders said in his ruling he was satisfied that the jury was capable of ignoring the comments from Cameron and other politicians. “That does not mean that I am not concerned about what has happened in this case,” he said. “I consider that what has happened is unsatisfactory so far as justice and the rule of law are concerned. When politicians regard it as open season, one cannot expect the press to remain silent.”
Cameron was pressed by the opposition Labour Party on Coulson at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons today. That session finished just as the jury said they were unable to reach verdicts on the remaining bribery charges.
The premier opened by apologizing again for hiring the former editor. “I’m sorry,” he told lawmakers. “This was the wrong decision,” before adding that “yesterday once again showed that no one is above the law in this country.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband asked Cameron why he had ignored warnings that Coulson’s involvement in hacking went deeper than he’d admitted.
The prime minister responded by referring him to Judge Brian Leveson’s inquiry into media practices, which was set up in the wake of the hacking scandal.
“All these issues, every single one, was dealt with by the Leveson Inquiry,” he said. “Leveson made no criticism of my conduct whatsoever.”
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