Andy Coulson at Leveson as-it-happened

Coulson at Leveson live
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Ian Dunt By

11:32 - Morning all. We'll be following Andy Coulson for his session at Leveson today and we'll have another live blog for you tomorrow when Rebekah Brooks takes the stand. Today could be a bruising one for the government. We haven't seen Coulson spend time in public since he appeared in front of the media select committee, and we all know how that went. While he can't talk phone-hacking proper, because of the ongoing criminal case., he can heap embarrassment on the prime minister. And that, we can only presume, is precisely what he'll do.

11:51 - "I have absolutely no intention of allowing my inquiry to be drawn into [a party political] debate," Leveson tells the inquiry as he kicks-starts module three into the relationship between the media and politicians. "I won't be making a judgment on whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code. That is simply not my job." He says he also won't talk about the "fitness or suitability of Rupert Murdoch". Now will he look at lobbying or competition regulations.

11:53 - You've got to say fair enough to Leveson. He's battling demands from all sides of the political spectrum, not to mention the press, with its various concerns and motivations. He continues: "Those who look for forensic fireworks should turn to fictional trials."

11:55 - The main victim there was David Cameron however. Now Leveson has made clear he won't rule on ministerial code breaches, the PM will again face calls for an independent investigation into whether Jeremy Hunt breached the ministerial code. My hunch is they won't succeed. Hunt will come when he comes, and the response to that session will decide his political future.

12:08 - Counsel Jay is currently offering his statement to start module three. It's interesting and nuanced. He is suggesting to Leveson that he will not find an explicit act of corruption - of favours - between prime minister's and press barons, such as Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. Instead, it is a "subtle and sophisticated" process by which unspoken favours are given by assumption and understanding. Murdoch had only to "observe" the print unions were the problem, for instance, and Thatcher would understand.

12:10 - "Human recollection is notoriously patchy and unreliable, we all know that," Jay says, referring to Murdoch's failures of memory. "Not only would the selective amnesia appear to be convenient... but inferences can be drawn. This issue is capable of bearing on Mr Murdoch's integrity."

12:32 - Jay ends his opening remarks by quoting from Tony Blair's memoirs. When Murdoch calls you, "you go". Murdoch, he adds, said the same thing. Leveson says they will first consider an Independent on Sunday story and then question Coulson at 2pm.

12:35 - OK, I'm going to take a short break now until Coulson appears. See you back here for 2pm.

14:02 - Just moments away from the afternoon session getting underway now. Let's see how Coulson performs. He resigned after he became the story; too late to stop today happening, at least.

14:04 - Coulson is in. He is dressed in a smart blue suit and appears formal and slightly nervous, giving one word answers the description of his career.

14:07 - Coulson says he hasn't spoken with Rebekah Brooks for a while but says he's close friends with her.

14:08 - About her politics, Coulson says he has no idea how she votes. It's interesting to note his accent. Almost everyone we've heard at Leveson has a middle class accent and many of them much posher than that. Coulson is proper Essex working class. You can see why Cameron thought he was useful as someone in touch with what the man on the street thinks.

14:11 - Coulson is talking about his conversations with Murdoch. He usually told him what they were running. "Wasn't he interested in stories which might impact on commercial success -the circulation figures?" Jay asks. Coulson focuses on sport, saying it was crucial. "You're bringing the conversation around to quite neutral topics such as sport," Jay says pointedly.

14:13 - We've got our first "I don't recall". Coulson says he doesn't remember a particular conversation on legislation. "I might in the course of a conversation offer a view," he says. Coulson says he was interested in politics, that despite being a Conservative he edited a Labour-supporting paper. Jay: Was it part of your job to assess the political mood of the country and how it might vote? Coulson says his job was to establish where the News of the World readership was. "To lead or to follow?" Leveson asks. "To reflect, sir," Coulson replies. There are media studies students who are going to have a field day with this stuff.

14:18 - Jay asks if he turned down the Daily Mirror editorship when Piers Morgan left. "There were conversations and I chose not to do so," he replies. Despite the Essex boy image, he has mastered that lawyerly/Westminster language. Someone on Twitter just said he sounds like a policeman giving evidence in court and they're bang on. We're now on Blair. He says he decided NOTW readers were best served by Blair.

14:20 - There's an awful lot of "I don't remembers" again. Coulson says he doesn't remember chatting to Rupert about it. Now we're on Cameron when he stood for Tory leader. Coulson met him with NI man Les Hilton. At that stage he wasn't Coulson's preferred candidate, he says. William Hague was employed as a columnist and Hague then expressed a preference. At that stage he hadn't come to "a clear view". In 2007, was NOTW moving to support the Tories? "It was the NOTW under my editorship which came up with the headline 'hug a hoodie' which wasn't helpful to Mr Cameron, so I don't think that's the case," he answers. Coulson is well off point. The argument isn't whether it never criticises leader, but whether it has broader political tactics. Jay moves on.

14:25 - There isn't much love lost between Jay and Coulson. To say they are cold with each other is an understatement. Jay says political support is "the clear subtext of your conversations with politicians". Coulson hedges. Again he doesn't know.

14:29 - We're now on meetings with Osborne. Coulson said they got along "fine". Coulson relaxes slightly, he smiles a little and unclasps his hands. They discuss a story about Osborne which, in Coulson's words "certainly wasn't helpful". I think this is the dominatrix and cocaine story (the only time I've ever liked Osborne, incidentally). Both the NOTW and Sunday Mirror published on the same day. Jay focuses on the 'give him another chance' leader column. Coulson says fine, but the front page headline was hardly great news for the chancellor.

14:33 - "This was putting a favourable gloss on quite a murky world, wasn't it?" Jay says. "Osborne was not admitting to anything here. These were claims of a friend of a friend," Coulson says. Coulson says the Sunday Mirror's leader was more critical but that even they didn't call for him to be fired. Jay: "Wasn't this a classic example? The NOTW couldn't resist a scoop. It then glosses it in the editorial and puts possibly the most favourable approach it could on the story." Coulson's response is interesting. He says if you are trying to prove NOTW bias towards a party it's a bad example. If there hadn't been a free DVD taking up half the front page the 'Osborne hooker' splash would have been twice the size.

14:36 - Jay moves on. Did you have a discussion with Murdoch before resigning from the NOTW? No. (This is when the Goodman/Mulcaire phone-hacking story broke in 2007).

14:38 - This is fairly run-of-the-mill at the moment. Jay focuses on his decision to resign and the conditions of it, particularly severance payments. He had stock in News Corp and shares in News International although he sold those before he resigned and then again when he left. By May did he have any more shares or stock in either? "I don't believe so, no," he replies. You can obviously see where Jay is going, but the road is barren.

14:42 - Now we're on Coulson joining Cameron's team. Osborne approached him because he would be "a positive asset". Jay: "It's pretty obvious he did know [Coulson's political sympathies] or he would have gone to someone else wouldn't he?" Coulson says a BBC man was considered for the job - Guto Harri - but it didn't work out.

14:44 - Forgot to mention. There was an interesting moment when Coulson said Both Blair and Brown sent commiserations when he left his NOTW job - but Cameron didn't. That will get used. Jay is questioning Coulson's ability to do the job - he'd never been a political editor. What qualities did he bring to the table? Coulson laughs nervously and says that was a question for Osborne. "It didn't feel like an interview at all. It was clear from the off they were interested in hiring me," Coulson says. Jay: "He'd already identified you as the man the Conservative party wanted?"

14:47 - Both Leveson and Jay seem amused by Coulson's answers - almost to point of breaking out laughing. "Did it not occur to you - why are they asking me to do this job?" Jay asks. Coulson admits it did a bit. "You're entering terrain that's rather different to your career. You're asked to do something completely different. Doesn't it pass your mind 'well why are they asking me to do this?'" Coulson says his editorship involved politics in a broad sense. It made him in tune with a vast newspaper readership and he had run campaigns. "Those things were attractive," he says. "The route from journalism to politics - I was hardly a pioneer".

14:52 - Now he's asked if the chief of staff for Cameron raised the Mulcaire case. "I don't remember but it's possible," Coulson says. This is important. Jay asks if he was offered the job after the conversation which might have taken place with Maude and the chief of staff. The conversation with Cameron in May was the confirmation conversation.

14:54 - Cameron asked. Coulson said the truth, that he knew nothing about it. Coulson says he told Brooks and a close group of friends that he was going to take the job. She congratulated him. He "thinks" she was pleased. He doesn't "recall" if she used influence to get him the job. He doesn't "remember" any conversations that would have suggested so.

14:57 - Again Leveson asks about why Cameron would have thought him the man for the job. The allusion, I suppose, was that they wanted the Murdoch empire on side. But frankly, why wouldn't an upper class Conservatives want someone who has shown ability to predict the opinion of a Sun/NOTW readers?

14:59 - Coulson is far better at evasion that the Murdochs. He uses just as many 'don't knows' but has enough information elsewhere to give him a stronger impression. We're not really getting anywhere here. Jay is asking about Brooks, who he describes as a lightening rod for access to the Sun. "She was a very powerful personality," Jay says. Coulson says she was a "strong personality". I'm not entirely sure what the difference is in this context.

15:05 - Coulson is doing the usual argument of saying there is no direct correlation between newspaper endorsement and voter preference. As Tory comms chief he "put a lot of effort into trying to gain the support of the Sun, I did exactly the same with the Daily Mail... and the Telegraph". He adds: "We wanted the support of as many newspapers as we possibly could." He says television was fundamentally important. That's certainly true. Watch Cameron at any event and the TV people are the ones he really cares about. Leveson points out that this is less relevant, given the TV people have to be impartial.

15:08 - You were trying to build a series of relationships so that when you had something to say you had the best chance of the widest positive coverage. Yep, that's the definition of a comms strategy. He says they did try with the Guardian, but not really the Mirror. Heh.

15:14 - A quick substitution in the team, here - this is Alex Stevenson taking over from Ian, who's dashed off to interview an MP. The tension continues to build until Jay, losing his temper in that very understated way of his, tells Coulson off for interpreting his questions too literally. All he wants to know, he explains, is whether Coulson thinks the link between politicians and the press is unhealthy. "The word unhealthy implies impropriety, and I'm not sure I agree with that," Coulson replies, coolly. He's totally relaxed now, in command of the situation. No more awkward hand-clasping like at the beginning. Coulson won't admit to anything negative, but then continues, unprompted, that a "process" has already started which is changing the relationship between newspaper editors and party leaders.

15:16 - And with that they're off for a short break. An opportunity for both Jay and Coulson to regroup - the counsel probably needing it more than the ex-spin doctor, I'd suggest.

15:27 - And we're back. Jay jumps straight in, questioning Coulson about restricted stock units granted to him when he left News International. I'm a busy man, Coulson says in a rather long-winded way, which is why he didn't notice it.

15:31 - Jay moves on quickly to the government's vetting of Coulson. It's established that Coulson was security cleared to a level allowing him fairly regular access to, you know, really top secret stuff. Coulson complained that his vetting status was inadequate. He was angling to get bumped up to a higher security grade, it sounds like, but then "events" interfered and he resigned over phone-hacking.

15:35 - It's odd how often Jay chooses to return to Coulson's relationship with Rebekah Brooks. We started with it, and here we are again. "When did you sense she was going to deliver this major prize?" Jay asks, referring to the Sun's endorsement of the Conservatives in the autumn of 2009. It wasn't necessarily in her "gift", Coulson replies. Sounds like it just sort of crept up on him. In fact they're agreeing on exactly that point, now. There wasn't a specific turning point; the shift from one party to another was a gradual thing.

15:38 - An interesting claim: what was more surprising about the Sun was its original decision to drop the Tories and back Tony Blair. "Returning to the Conservatives," Coulson suggests, wasn't really surprising at all.

15:41 - Was the ultimate decision being taken by Rupert Murdoch, heavily advised by Rebekah Brooks? No, Coulson says surprisingly - he thinks James Murdoch was taking a "senior role" at News Corp. "Three people, then," says Jay drily, doing a superb job of hiding his glee. This was all a big set-up to an attack on Sun editor Dominic Mohan, who - Jay suggests - would just roll over and do whatever the bosses said. "You seem to have a fairly disparaging view of ex-showbiz reporters," Coulson says, hitting back.

15:44 - Lord Justice Leveson jumps in, now, and remembers Rupert Murdoch saying that it was the Sun which was his favourite paper - and therefore he had the most interest in its political line. Does that surprise Coulson? "I'm not for a second suggesting that Rupert Murdoch wasn't a fundamental part of the decision-making process," he says. Interesting, and significant. "I'm sure Rupert Murdoch took a very clear view."

15:46 - Cameron was thoroughly cheerful when Coulson told him over the phone the Sun was going to endorse the Conservatives. Coulson says Cameron was pleased, but that he was instinctively cautious. "You're instinctively cautious about everything, Mr Coulson," Jay observes, smiling. Coulson doesn't bat an eyelid. "I wasn't going to see it as an absolute until I'd seen the paper." He is just a little bit like a robot, isn't he? Jay is making progress, but still is struggling to break him down.

15:57 - The questioning has been focusing on Frederic Michel, News International's main corporate public affairs executive - a key figure whose contacts with Jeremy Hunt's office are threatening the future career of the culture secretary. It seems Coulson came across him once or twice - references to "brief conversations" here and there. Coulson says he "doesn't recall" any conversations about the BSkyB takeover bid. He thinks he wasn't sure how aware he was before the bid emerged that it was going to happen. He didn't talk to Rebekah Brooks about it.

16:00 - We're looking at para 95 of the witness statement, where Coulson said he met Michel once or twice for coffee in No 10. There's a bit of a mix-up about which meeting they're talking about. So they move on to another meeting, with ex Spanish-PM Jose Maria Aznar, who was working for News Corp at the time. Coulson was in opposition then. "It was a political conversation," Coulson recalls. "Mm," Jay says to himself, thoughtfully. Another of his thoroughly excellent pauses. A good opportunity for me to jump out, and hand the as-it-happens baton back to Ian...

16:01 - Coulson is being asked about his knowledge of Cable's war with Murdoch and his relationship with Jeremy Hunt. Did he ever speak to him about there BSkyB bid? "I don't recall any conversations about BSkyB" Coulson says. Leveson asks if any politicians chatted with him. He says no, not that he remembers. Jay asks if NOTW ever plugged BSkyB programmes. Sky always paid its price for promotion - whether they paid the same rate as anyone else he doesn't know.

16:03 - Jay asks about people coming "through the back door of Downing Street". Murdoch did, Coulson said. "There's a list of back door people and front door people," Leveson suggests. "I don't know which door these other people came through, sir, to be honest." Leveson: "Alright. I've got to keep myself entertained Mr Coulson." Coulson laughs nervously.

16:07 - Coulson is asked if he briefed about people. He says no, but admits he had strong views about Brown or Labour policy and individuals in government - "I think I probably would" express it. Jay asks if he thinks negative briefings are a problem. "I think that moment came to a head with Damian McBride affair," he says.

16:10 - Did he discuss his departure from No 10 with Brooks etc? He says it was afterwards. "It was a difficult period and I can't be absolutely sure." He says he's asked NI to furnish him with all the background to the case and his own involvement etc, but they're not able to do so because he's an ex employee.

16:17 - They're going into some detail of the Matt Driscoll case.

16:18 - The afternoon lobby has been going on. Asked if Cameron is watching Coulson, his spokesman said: "I don't know... he has meetings this afternoon." Coulson should have filled in disclosure form on his shares on appointment, and discussed with Jeremy Heywood, according to the spokesman. The spokesman refused to confirm that Mr Cameron and Ms Brooks are "friends".

16:21 - The Driscoll case relates to bullying, by the way. Coulson's response? "I accept that my response was intemperate but I do not accept that it equated to bullying." Jay suggests he did so to get him out. Coulson rejects that finding.

16:25 - That finishes Jay's questions. Coulson says he wants to make a point in relation to the "theory" NI made a deal with the Tories on BSkyB. "If there was a deal and there was a conspiracy, why was Vince Cable given the job? It is in the PM's gift to decide who held which brief in his Cabinet."

16:26 - Leveson now asks his - usually abstract and broad - closing questions. He says that more than most Coulson would have reflected on the core issue of this part of the inquiry - whether the relationship between the press and politicians has become too close.

16:28 - The PM himself accepts it got too close and "I'm not minded to disagree with him". What you do about it is more difficult - he doesn't want barriers between politics and the press. "People are disengaging with politics, and if you erect more barriers that's going to get an awful lot worse. I sincerely hope, with respect, that the result of this part of the inquiry does not erect yet more barriers between what is already a pretty difficult process." Jay: "If you'd heard what I said earlier today you'd know I'm keen on ensuring politicians have a method to identify what their policies are and can engage the public with them."

16:32 - Friendship doesn't always have an ulterior motive, Coulson says, and yet that is commonly the message from the inquiry. Leveson says politicians and journalists are entitled to be friends but one must "differentiate" between social and business relationships. Coulson says he agrees. "What's happened over the course of the last year is going to solve that problem for you." That was quite wry. Leveson: "If I could be assured the very fact of the last several moths had solved the purpose I could go back to productive judicial work."

16:34 - And with that it comes to an end. Two and a half hours of evidence. Relatively manageable.

16:35 - What's the news for that session? There is the potentially dangerous matter of his £40,000 shares during his time as opposition communications boss. And he said he did have access to sensitive information, despite categorical denials of that from Downing Street.

16:38 - However, I thought Coulson came out of that pretty well. He was relatively likable. He used the "can't remember" line a lot, but put in enough details to stop himself looking shifty. The big caveat is that he can't talk about phone-hacking because of the criminal proceedings. The real victim of all these sessions remains David Cameron.

16:42 - OK, that's it from us for today. We'll see you tomorrow for Rebekah Brooks.


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