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Phone-hacking trial: Coulson 'didn't rate' Milly Dowler story

The trial of former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, the prime minister's former director of communications Andy Coulson and six others began at the Old Bailey on 28 October. The Drum will be in court for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last at least four months, and will provide comprehensive updates on this blog.

The trial is scheduled to examine seven counts that include conspiracy to intercept communications in the course of their transmission, conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Coverage will be provided by James Doleman, who was acclaimed for his exhaustive and responsible reporting of the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial.

Andy Coulson and wife Eliose arrive at court

  • Former editor "did not read every word of paper"
  • Saw phone hacking as not illegal but "lazy journalism"
  • "Didn't rate" Milly Dowler voicemail story
  • Was never informed team of reporters following up voicemails
  • Paper's "internal view" was Dowler probably dead, Coulson tells court
  • Proceedings resumed at the phone-hacking trial this morning to hear further evidence from former News of the World editor and ex-director of government communications Andy Coulson. Coulson, the last one of the six accused to testify, is facing one charge of conspiracy to illegally intercept communications and two charges of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office.

    The defendant's counsel, Timothy Langdale QC, began the morning by asking his client for further details about the production process of the News of the World. The jury was given a floor plan showing where editorial staff were located relative to each other. This included a room labelled "secret office" which the jury has already heard was used to protect stories when there were worries about leaks to rival newspapers. Coulson told the court that the suggestion that the secret office had to be soundproofed, because deputy editor Neil Wallis kept shouting about the confidential information, was "absolute nonsense". The former editor told the court that as production day neared he would work mainly on the "back bench" where a "dummy" of the paper was being put together.

    Langdale then asked the witness how much of the paper he would have read. "I wouldn't have read every word, I tended not to read early versions of stories as they would change over time," Coulson said, adding: "I was mainly concerned with the front page and the bigger stories." Coulson told the court that it was "reasonably common" for articles to be changed or moved between the first and third editions of the paper, sometimes to include stories from rival papers or to correct mistakes. The defendant described the atmosphere in the office on a Saturday night as "frenetic" with staff hurrying to meet deadlines for printing and distribution. Each story, Coulson said, would be checked by sub-editors and production staff and, if required, by the in-house lawyers to be approved from a legal standpoint.

    The defence barrister then asked the former editor about the paper's relationship with the police. Coulson said that they would always seek to co-operate with the police "in general terms" as "part of the News of the World's DNA was catching criminals", which brought the paper into contact with police officers. "We would try and work with the police wherever possible," Coulson said. "There were times we almost worked as the police's agent," he added, telling the court that in 2004 he had passed on information about the purchase of "red mercury" which the jury was told could have been used to make "dirty bombs".

    The defence QC then turned to what he called "the main issue in this case, what is generally known as phone hacking." The defendant told the court he was "aware of it in very vague terms, it was in the ether, people gossiped about it." Coulson said he did not know any details of how hacking was carried out but had "possibly heard it was about accessing voicemails through pin codes". Asked if he was ever party to, or involved in, phone hacking at the News of the World the defendant replied "no I was not", but did tell the court that in 2002 he was not aware intercepting voicemails was a crime. "It was intrusive and lazy journalism," he said adding: "The people I worked with were never interested in phone hacking."

    The defence then moved on to the events of 14 April 2002 when the News of the World printed a story about missing teenager Milly Dowler which contained quotes from her mobile telephone voicemail. It is an agreed fact in the case that convicted phone hacker Glenn Mulcaire illegally accessed Dowler's voicemail on 10 April and passed the contents on to journalists at the News of the World. The court was shown a note made by managing editor Stuart Kuttner about contacting the police over the Dowler voicemail. Coulson told the court that Kuttner would "not necessarily" have informed him about this. "The editor would only need to know about things that could seriously impact on the paper," the defendant said. The court has already been told that News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks was on holiday in Dubai on that weekend so Coulson was in charge of that week's edition.

    Court then took a short break.

    When the jury returned, Timothy Langdale QC told the court that the front page "splash" of the News of the World on 14 April 2002 was about an actor Michael Greco leaving the BBC television series Eastenders. Coulson told the court that he was in contact with Greco's agent, Dave Reid, through the week negotiating about the fee to be paid for this exclusive. The defendant was asked about the five reporters who had been sent to Telford to follow up the Dowler voicemail story. The former editor told the court "I don't think I did know" that this had been done. The witness did confirm he was repeatedly on the phone to Rebekah Brooks over that weekend but could not recall exactly what they discussed. "It could have been about any number of things," he told the jury.

    Coulson was then asked when he heard that there was a possibility that it was possible that Milly Dowler had taken a job in a factory. The defendant said he "had that memory in my mind" although could not recall how he was told. "I thought it was nonsense, Milly Dowler was a 13-year-old schoolgirl whose picture had been all over the newspapers", he said. "The idea that she could walk into a factory and take a job seemed ludicrous to me."

    Asked about his view at the time, Coulson told the court "the paper believed internally that the most likely possibility was that, very sadly, Milly Dowler was dead and her dad was the likely suspect". The defendant said he would not usually have been informed about the team of reporters being sent to Telford as it was the job of the news editor to allocate journalists to stories.

    Coulson was then asked if he, hypothetically, had been aware of the Dowler hacking what his reaction would have been. "I would have been very concerned that this would have been interference in a police investigation," he told the court. The former editor told the court he could not remember being aware that journalists at the paper had been in contact with Surrey police over the voicemails or that the paper's story had been changed between the first and third editions to remove any reference to them. The defendant said he could not say precisely what was going through his mind when he saw the voicemail quotes in the first article but told the court: "I may have concluded that it came from sources, possibly police sources". He said that he did not remember reading the story but pointed out the story had "no exclusive on it" and " as the News of the World was not shy about claiming an exclusive, I would have thought it was an unremarkable story that the police had given to every newspaper".

    The defendant was then asked why the story led page nine on the paper. Coulson said this might have been a "back bench decision" as the story did include a new picture of the missing girl. "I don't want to appear dismissive about a missing schoolgirl but I don't think I rated this as a story... it was a hoax wrapped in a riddle." On the story being put on a different page, Coulson said: "I don't want to appear trivial but I think I moved it for cosmetic reasons, the mix was wrong, and it is possible this caused me to move the pages."

    Coulson said he was not involved in changing the content of the story to remove the references to voicemails, saying that this may have been carried out by the newsdesk. The former editor also confirmed that he would have expected the story to have been checked by one of the newspaper's lawyers and, if it was clear from the story that the News of the World had hacked Dowler's voicemail, he would have expected the legal staff to have raised questions and they did not. Coulson then asked if he could reinforce a point about why the story moved and told the court. "The problem with the first edition was there was a lack of glamourous content in the first half of the paper."

    Asked by his counsel, Coulson told the court he could not remember having any conversation with Rebekah Brooks about the Dowler story on that weekend. "Looking at the changes I made to the paper I don't see any reason why I would have." Coulson was shown another story from the paper, an article by Richard Perle about the Middle East conflict and told the court that "This was a minor coup for us and was something I thought Rupert Murdoch would be interested in", adding that he discussed this piece with Murdoch later that week.

    Court then rose for lunch.

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