LONDON (AFP) - Andy Coulson, a former top aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron, was jailed for 18 months on Friday for his role in the phone-hacking scandal that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid.
The sentence passed by a judge at the Old Bailey court in London caps a stunning fall from grace for Coulson, the ex-editor of the newspaper, who once enjoyed access to the heights of the British establishment.
Former News of the World news editor Greg Miskiw and chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck were each sentenced to six months imprisonment, while journalist James Weatherup and private detective Glenn Mulcaire each received suspended sentences.
Murdoch shut the tabloid in disgrace in 2011 after it emerged it had become what prosecutors called a “criminal enterprise” that hacked the voicemails of royals, politicians, celebrities and even a murdered schoolgirl.
“Mr Coulson has to take the major shame for the blame of phone hacking at the News of the World,” Judge John Saunders said as he passed sentence. “He knew about it, he encouraged it when he should have stopped it.”
Cameron was last week forced to make an embarrassing public apology after Coulson was convicted on June 24 on one count of conspiring with others to illegally access voicemails following a marathon eight-month trial. The other four had all pleaded guilty.
Coulson, 46, was editor of the News of the World from 2003 to 2007 and then worked as Cameron’s communications chief until his resignation in 2011. 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.
During mitigation hearings this week ahead of the sentencing, Coulson blamed lawyers at the tabloid for failing to tell him that phone-hacking was illegal.
“Despite the seriousness, the facts of the case do not justify the maximum penalty,” his current lawyer Timothy Langdale told the court. “No one at the News of the World or the newspaper industry at large in 2000-06 realised that interception of voicemail messages was illegal.”
The prosecution has asked for £750,000 (S$1.6 million) in legal costs from Coulson and the others.
The trial itself ranged from the scandalous to the arcane, hearing evidence that Brooks and Coulson had an extra-marital 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 admitted it was the “wrong decision” to take on Coulson, although he denied ignoring warnings about the journalist’s activities at the News of the World.
Cameron was then rebuked by the judge for speaking out about the case, one of the most expensive in British criminal history, before it was finished.
Coulson and the tabloid’s former royal editor Clive Goodman 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 also prompted a major judge-led inquiry on the reform of Britain’s notoriously raucous press.