Judge raps Cameron over Coulson

David Cameron has faced heavy criticism from a high court judge for almost collapsing the multi-million pound phone hacking trial by commenting on his ex-No 10 spin doctor Andy Coulson's conviction while the jury was still out.

Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson arrives at the Old Bailey in London
Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson arrives at the Old Bailey in London

Mr Justice Saunders expressed his "concern" at the Prime Minister's public apology for hiring Coulson in 2007, which was issued immediately after he was found guilty of plotting to hack phones at the News of the World in the six years before he joined the Conservatives.

Yesterday, Mr Cameron led the way in what the senior judge described as "open season" on political reaction which saw the Chancellor George Osborne, Labour leader Ed Miliband and others follow suit.

At the time, the jury was still deliberating on two remaining counts against Coulson, 46, of allegedly conspiring with former royal editor Clive Goodman, 56, to commit misconduct in a public office in relation to paying police officers for two royal phone directories.

Today the judge refused a bid by Coulson's legal team to excuse the jury from deciding on the outstanding charges after considering the argument the ex tabloid editor could no longer received a fair trial amid such a "maelstrom of reporting".

Barely an hour later, jurors concluded they could not agree and were discharged after nine days' deliberation and 139 days of the trial.

Coulson faces up to two years in prison when he is sentenced next week along with others who have already pleaded guilty. His ex-lover and colleague Rebekah Brooks was cleared of all charges.

The judge said he had asked the Prime Minister for an explanation and was told by his principal private secretary Chris Martin: "The Prime Minister was responding to the guilty verdict on hacking charges that had been delivered in open court."

But Mr Justice Saunders said the Prime Minister had "missed the point" and revealed information the jury had not been told during the trial for legal reasons.

He said: "My sole concern is to ensure that justice is done. Politicians have other imperatives and I understand that. Whether the political imperative was such that statements could not await all the verdicts, I leave to others to judge."

"The press in court have been extremely responsible in their reporting of this case but when politicians regard it as open season, one cannot expect the press to remain silent. I accept that this case is very unusual if not unique, but the situation could occur again and I would urge that discussions take place to try and set up a better system of dealing with it."

Coulson's lawyer Timothy Langdale QC had earlier blamed the politicians for putting politics before justice and ignoring the directions of the judge to exercise restraint until all verdicts were in.

He said: "This was an extraordinary situation where the ill advised and premature intervention by the Prime Minister and others to avoid political damage or make political capital is almost impossible for the jury to ignore. It strikes at the heart of justice."

"It is astonishing, we say unprecedented, for a prime minister to make public comments at such a crucial juncture in trial proceedings."

He said the comments came from "entrenched party political battles" with no regard for the laws on prejudicing a jury.

But prosecutor Andrew Edis QC argued: "What Mr Cameron said is Mr Coulson told him a lie. What Mr Miliband said is Mr Coulson is a criminal. The jury were satisfied so they were sure Mr Coulson was guilty of count one which makes him to that extent a criminal. In coming to that conclusion they decided he had told them lies for days on end about phone hacking so Mr Cameron was not really telling them anything that they did not know.

"This is probably the most media savvy jury that has ever tried a criminal case. They have seen the underside of the press. They have heard evidence about relationships between the press and politicians. They know what goes on better than anyone and they are very well placed indeed to discount media comment and to concentrate on the evidence they have heard."

Following the partial verdict, Mr Cameron had said: "I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson. I did so on the basis of undertakings I was given by him about phone hacking and those turned out not to be the case.

"I always said that if they turned out to be wrong, I would make a full and frank apology and I do that today. I am extremely sorry that I employed him. It was the wrong decision and I am very clear about that."

Mr Cameron's official spokesman confirmed that the Prime Minister took legal advice from the Government's senior law officer, Attorney General Dominic Grieve, before making his televised statement.

Labour said Mr Miliband had been careful in his own televised statement not to raise issues of Coulson's character or the facts of the trial - other than to refer to the former Number 10 director of communications as a "criminal", a fact which had been established by the jury itself.

"It seems to us that these are matters between the judge and the Prime Minister," said a senior Labour source.

Cabinet veteran Kenneth Clarke, a QC and a former lord chancellor, described Mr Cameron's comments as "unwise".

The hacking trial is not the first time Mr Cameron has fallen foul of an English court for making comments connected to an ongoing trial.

Last year the Prime Minister was criticised by a judge for publicly backing Nigella Lawson during the fraud trial of her personal assistants Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo.

Coulson was recruited by Chancellor George Osborne to head the Tory media operation within months of resigning as News of the World (NotW) editor in January 2007 because hacking happened on his watch.

He admitted in court he did not tell the Conservatives what he knew of hacking at the newspaper because he thought they would not have offered him the job.

When Mr Cameron entered Downing Street, he took on duties heading the No 10 spin operation, quitting shortly before he was arrested when the phone-hacking scandal erupted again four years later.

Coulson, 46, of Charing, Kent, and Goodman, 56, of Addlestone, Surrey, declined to comment as they left court . They will now have to wait until Monday before being told whether they will face a re-trial.

Greg McGill, a senior lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "This case was not about whether phone hacking took place or whether public officials were paid for information; there are a significant number of recent convictions which show that both did happen.

"This has been a lengthy and complex trial which was required to explore a culture of invading privacy.

"Despite a number of applications by the defence to have the case thrown out, the judge agreed that the evidence was sufficient for consideration by the jury.

"The jury has found that Andy Coulson, former editor of a national newspaper, conspired with others to hack phones.

"Others who have admitted their role in this illegal practice - Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup, Glenn Mulcaire and Dan Evans - all now face sentencing for phone hacking.

"We respect the verdicts and will inform the court on Monday of our decision on whether to retry the outstanding counts.

"As closely linked criminal proceedings are under way, I have nothing further to add at this time."