Why Andy Coulson was cleared of perjury – and where the British press goes from here

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

On a windswept Home Counties golf course on Tuesday there was jubilation in the ranks of of the newspapermen and women playing in the Press Golfing Society tournament.

Andy Coulson leaves court a free man. Photo: James Doleman

Although it could not be made public, a judge in Scotland had thrown out the perjury case against Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World and David Cameron's ex-director of communications.

Lord Burns, the judge, had acquitted Coulson on Monday but had to suspend the verdict until the prosecution decided if they were going to appeal against his decision. Reporting restrictions were imposed but the news spread like wildfire within the industry.

Coulson had an agonising wait until the decision was made by the Crown Office not to fight the judge's ruling. Now after four horrific years he has his life back. The trick now is to find a new job and rebuild.

Speaking outside the court, Coulson called the trial a gross waste of public money, insisted that he had never lied and that the prosecution had been unwarranted.

However, the judge's decision to formally acquit came on a technicality in Scottish law and not on his claims of innocence. Coulson's defence advocate successfully argued that Scottish prosecutors had misunderstood the law on perjury. Lord Burns agreed, saying that under Scottish law perjury can only be committed if the lie had a material effect on the previous trial, adding "not every lie amounts to perjury".

So, Coulson was cleared of perjury but not of lying under oath when he appeared as a witness in the trial of former Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan. He had already served seven months in prison after being found guilty last year at the Old Bailey of being involved in a conspiracy to hack phones when was the News of the World editor.

Scottish prosecutors have also dropped charges against four other journalists bringing to an end in Scotland the investigations into the press. In England the cases are still stacking up, both criminal and civil, and there are still more charges to come with more reporters and executives facing ordeals in the dock.

But it seems the legal blood lust that saw Coulson and others sent to prison is not so intense. Last week the Sun crime reporter Anthony France was found guilty of paying a public official for information, and the judge seemed almost sorry to sentence him and suspended the 18 months jail time.

Those who were in the vanguard of the hacking trials may feel somewhat aggrieved that they appeared in court when the campaign against journalists breaking the law on phone hacking was so intense.

Of course, the law has to take its course and in the next few weeks we will learn about charges involving Mirror Group journalists and the full extent of how much the Mirror will have to pay out in civil damages to the hundreds of victims. But a dreadful eight years for the British press since the first hacking trial in 2007 is coming to an end.

Time will tell if the prosecutions and the jail terms have given us a better press and on that the jury is till out.

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.