UK tabloid ex-editor Coulson says only vaguely knew of phone-hacking

LONDON (AFP) - Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson told Britain's phone-hacking trial on Tuesday he was only vaguely aware of the practice during his time at the Murdoch tabloid.

The defendant said he was never party to voicemail interception or in agreement with it.

Coulson also said that as deputy editor in 2002, he did not know the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler - later found murdered - had been accessed.

The revelation in July 2011 that the 13-year-old's phone had been hacked sparked outrage and forced global media baron Rupert Murdoch to close the News of the World - Britain's top-selling tabloid - within days.

Coulson told the Old Bailey court in London that in 2002, he was not aware that accessing someone else's voicemail messages was a crime.

He told England's central criminal court that before the Dowler incident he was only vaguely aware of the practice of accessing voicemails.

"I think I was aware of it in very vague terms. I think it was in the ether. It was something that was gossiped about maybe," he said.

Asked by his lawyer Timothy Langdale if he was ever party to or in agreement with phone hacking at the News of the World, Coulson replied: "No I was not."

The 46-year-old, who went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief in government, said he had not known that accessing someone else's voicemail messages was in fact against the law.

But he said: "I would have thought it was intrusive, I would have thought that it was a breach of privacy, and I also would have thought that it was lazy journalism.

"My attitudes were formed by the people I had worked for and the kind of reporter that I was and neither the people I had worked for or myself as a reporter was interested in that - that kind of behaviour."

Coulson became the News of the World's deputy editor in 2000, then editor of Britain's biggest-selling newspaper in 2003 before resigning in 2007.

On April 14, 2002, a first edition of the tabloid carried the story "Milly Hoax Riddle" on page nine, containing references to material contained in voicemails on Dowler's phone. However, by the final print edition it had been moved back to page 30 with the references removed.

Coulson said the move back was likely down to "cosmetic reasons", due to a "lack of glamourous content" in the front section of the paper.

He said he would not have known from the content that anyone at the tabloid had hacked the schoolgirl's phone. "I may have concluded that it came from sources, possibly even police sources, I don't know," he said.

As the story did not have "exclusive" on it, "I would have thought this was a fairly unremarkable story that could have been given to every other newspaper" by the police.

"I don't think there's any obvious alarm bell there."

The report was of a "hoax wrapped in a riddle so I don't think I rated this story".

He said he did not remember having any conversations about the story with editor Rebekah Brooks, who was on holiday in Dubai at the time.

Langdale asked: "In terms of the Milly Dowler story were you aware of any activity by the News of the World in relation to hacking Milly Dowler's voicemail messages?"

Coulson replied: "No I was not."

Coulson said he was a "risk averse" editor.

"I certainly had no interest in landing the paper in trouble because I would have been landing myself in trouble," he said.

Coulson denies one charge of conspiracy to hack phones and two of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

Coulson resumes giving evidence on Wednesday.

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