Now that the jury in the phone-hacking trial has been discharged, The Drum can reveal that Prime Minister David Cameron's apology for hiring Andy Coulson could have led to the collapse of the rest of the trial. As soon as the verdict was in Coulson”s Barrister, Timothy Langdale told the court that he phoned the governments chief legal officer, the Attorney General, to warn him any comments from Cameron could be contempt of court. The Attorney General replied he was sitting next to the Prime Minister but as Cameron had already filmed his apology, "the horse had bolted."
After Cameron made his televised statement on Tuesday afternoon, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Saunders, recalled the court to inform the legal teams that he had written to the prime minister to express his dismay at the comments only to receive a reply which he characterised as "missing the point".
"I asked for an explanation from the Prime Minister as to why he had issued his statement while the jury were still considering verdicts," Mr Justice Saunders said. "I received a response from his principal private secretary which said ‘the prime minister was responding to the guilty verdict on hacking charges that had been delivered in open court. He did this in the light of the intense media coverage and understandable public interest. The Prime Minister was careful to make no further comment about any matters that might still be before the court.’
"I accept that that was the Prime Minister’s intention but I am afraid that to an extent his explanation misses the point. He has now told the public and therefore the jury that he was given assurances by Mr Coulson before he employed him which turned out to be untrue. The jury were not aware of that before and it is a matter which is capable of affecting Mr Coulson’s credibility in their eyes. Mr Coulson’s credibility is a matter which is in issue on the final two charges that the jury have to consider."
Mr Justice Saunders added that he was "not seeking to single out the prime minister" and said politicians "from across the political spectrum" had commented publicly following Coulson's phone-hacking conviction.
"Other politicians have chosen to comment about Mr Coulson and as a result the jury have heard of matters which were not admitted at the trial for legal reasons. I am certainly not seeking or intending to single out the prime minister," he said. "Politicians from across the political spectrum have seen fit to make strong comments about Mr Coulson despite the fact that the jury are still deliberating.
"The chairman of the parliamentary committee which investigated phone-hacking has told the public that Mr Coulson lied to them in the evidence that he gave. Evidence of what Mr Coulson said before the committee could not be given in court as it would amount to a breach of parliamentary privilege. That was the view of parliamentary counsel which was conveyed to the court and which I accepted. Again that information is capable of affecting the jury’s view of Mr Coulson’s credibility."
Saunders then went on to question the motives of "high profile people" who made comments "in defence of their own position or to attack another’s" without any consideration of the rights of defendants to have a fair trial. The judge went on to say that he didn't know if this "was just done in ignorance or whether it was done deliberately", adding: "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."
This morning Saunders issued a formal written judgement which rejected a defence motion to dismiss the case, explaining that he trusted this particular jury to ignore the publicity and decide their verdict only on the evidence given in court. In the event, the 11 jurors remained deadlocked on the final charge and were discharged by the judge. A decision on a re-trial is due to be announced on Monday.
The judge also rejected the defence argument that the media were at fault for reporting the Prime Minister's remarks, saying: "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."
This is not the first time David Cameron has been rebuked by a judge, during the trial of Nigella Lawson's personal assistants he was quoted on TV saying he was part of "team Nigella" leading to that judge, Robin Johnson, specifically telling the jury to ignore the prime minister's comments.