It could have been a very bad day for British Prime Minister David Cameron, but instead he received robust support from an unexpected quarter. Andy Coulson, the spin doctor he'd fired, described him as a thoroughly decent and moral man who was in no way the puppet of any press baron.
Mr. Coulson, Mr. Cameron's former communications chief, was testifying before the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking and the relationship between the press and politicians. Mr. Coulson's role is crucial in the examination of the scandal that is currently engulfing press, politicians and police in Britain.
He was the editor for four years of the now-defunct News of the World tabloid, where most of the phone-hacking allegations originate, and went directly from the editorship of that Rupert Murdoch-owned title to the halls of power as main communications director for the Conservative Party.
Anyone hoping he'd aim a smoking gun at either of his former bosses was disappointed. Mr. Murdoch, whose News Corp., is suffering the repercussions of the scandal, was a "warm and supportive" owner, Mr. Coulson said. And in his witness statement he described Mr. Cameron, who fired him in January, 2011, as a "thoroughly hard-working and inspirational boss and leader, and a thoroughly decent, moral man."
However, he did agree with Lord Justice Brian Leveson that the relationship between powerful media interests and politicians had become too close: "The Prime Minister himself has said it got too cozy," Mr. Coulson said. He added that he had encouraged Mr. Cameron to foster close relationships with the media, with the result that the Prime Minister complained "frequently" about having to spend too much time with journalists.
Mr. Coulson never raised his voice and remained expressionless through the two and a half hour testimony, even when it was suggested that he only got the job at 10 Downing Street because of his connections to Mr. Murdoch's News International newspapers. "Well, they couldn't have hurt," he said. "But I didn't take the view that they'd guarantee any kind of support.'' At the same time, Mr. Coulson admitted he had kept $60,000 in News International shares during his time with the Conservatives: This is contentious because the government was reviewing the Murdochs' takeover bid of a lucrative cable company, BSkyB.
Mr. Coulson resigned as editor of News of the World the day that the newspaper's royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was sent to jail on phone-hacking charges in January, 2007, along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. In July of that year, Mr. Coulson became the communications director for the Conservative Party, and then became the Prime Minister's chief spokesman when Mr. Cameron moved to 10 Downing Street in May, 2010.
Mr. Coulson also denied any collusion between media tycoons and senior politicians but did say that the fallout from the phone hacking scandal was forcing politicians to distance themselves from journalists and media bosses.
"I want to make it quite clear that there was never any inappropriate deal between the papers and the party," he said. "There were no conditions or contingencies suggested or levied in return for a newspaper's support."
The revelations about the close ties between Murdoch executives and Mr. Cameron's party have come at a difficult time for the Prime Minister, following a drubbing in local elections and a budget castigated for cutting taxes for the rich. The questioning by the inquiry's lead counsel, Robert Jay, was restricted to the relationship between the press and politicians. Anyone who wanted to know what Mr. Coulson knew about phone hacking at the News of the World was bound to be disappointed: Justice Leveson has ruled that there won't be any questions in that area, since it's the subject of a criminal inquiry.
Mr. Coulson was arrested in connection with police investigations into phone hacking and bribery of public officials, along with his one-time boss, Rebekah Brooks. Neither of them has been charged. Ms. Brooks, the former CEO of News International and a friend of the Prime Minister's until her fall from grace, is set to appear before the Leveson inquiry on Friday.
The Murdoch-owned Times of London newspaper reported this week that Ms. Brooks has retained supportive text messages from the Prime Minister, a neighbour and occasional riding companion in the up-market rural enclave of Chipping Norton. In earlier testimony which is unlikely to do Mr. Cameron any good, Jonathan Harmsworth, the owner of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday newspapers, talked about the time he'd spent at the Prime Minister's country estate, Chequers. He said his business interests weren't discussed. To do so in a social setting, said Mr. Harmsworth, who is also known as Viscount Rothermere, would have been "rude" and "bad manners."
With files from Reuters, AP