Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s former director of communications, has been arrested and charged over allegations of lying on oath when he gave evidence in court about phone hacking at the News of the World.
Coulson was questioned over perjury by Scottish police after he was detained early on Wednesday morning at his home in London and then driven to a high security police station in Glasgow. The former News of the World editor is alleged to have lied to the high court in Glasgow when he gave evidence at the perjury trial of the socialist politician Tommy Sheridan in December 2010, while he was Cameron’s chief media adviser and the government’s head of communications. He was detained by seven Strathclyde police officers from Operation Rubicon, a major inquiry into alleged perjury during Sheridan’s trial and hacking allegations in Scotland, at his home in Dulwich, south London at 6.30am and taken north by car. Shortly before 10pm on Wednesday evening he was arrested and charged in connection with alleged perjury. He was then released from police custody.
Coulson was held for suspected perjury under section 14 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 at Govan police station, the base for Operation Rubicon. In a brief statement issued on Facebook at 22.05 on Wednesday night, Strathclyde police said: “A 44-year- old man has been arrested in connection with alleged perjury before the high court. A report will be submitted to the procurator fiscal.” Under the Scottish system, confirmation of that arrest meant Coulson had also been charged with perjury. The charge against Coulson comes as the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, prepares to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry on Thursday in a session that could make or shatter his political career just weeks before he oversees the London Olympics.
Hunt will attempt to show that he handled the News Corp bid for BSkyB impartially from January 2011 until the bid was withdrawn. But he will have to explain how he was unaware that his special adviser Adam Smith – for whom he was responsible under the ministerial code – was systematically funnelling sometimes commercially confidential information to News Corp lobbyists. The shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman is likely to respond to Hunt’s evidence by demanding that Cameron now launch a formal government investigation into whether there have been any breaches of the ministerial code by Hunt. Leveson has said he is not equipped to adjudicate on such an issue, but Harman will want Hunt referred to the independent adviser on the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allan, on the basis that he is the only public figure charged with mounting this specific investigation.
The news that Coulson had been detained broke just as the business secretary Vince Cable started giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry on Wednesday, adding to the sense that the whole phone hacking inquiry is becoming ever more all-encompassing for Downing Street. Coulson, who resigned as NoW editor in January 2007 after his Royal editor, Clive Goodman, was convicted of hacking phones used by members of the Royal family, had been called as a defence witness by Sheridan, who was on trial for lying in court when he won a £200,000 defamation action against the Sunday tabloid. Then conducting his own defence, Sheridan questioned Coulson over the course of two days about his knowledge of a hacking operation against Sheridan carried out by Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective who worked for the NoW and was jailed alongside Goodman.
After the longest perjury trial in Scottish criminal history, Sheridan was jailed for three years and sent first to Barlinnie prison. After serving 12 months in Castle Huntly open prison near Dundee, Sheridan is now living at home under a strict curfew with a satellite tag on his ankle. During the trial, Sheridan produced documentary evidence that he had been twice targeted by Mulcaire in 2004, and accused Coulson of running a newspaper where hacking and the “dark arts” were commonplace. Coulson repeatedly denied Sheridan’s allegations, and told the court he had never met or heard of Mulcaire before Goodman’s trial, and had had no knowledge whatsoever that hacking had been used by the paper’s staff. “I don’t accept there was a culture of phone hacking at the NoW,” Coulson told the jury. “There was a very unfortunate, to put it mildly, case involving Clive Goodman. No one was more sorry about it than me; that’s why I resigned.”
It since emerged that close members of Sheridan’s family and other associates were also potential targets for Mulcaire, including the politician’s mother, Alice Sheridan, and the Scottish politician Joan McAlpine, a former friend of his who co-wrote a book on Sheridan’s anti-poll tax campaign in the early 1990s. Strathclyde police, working with senior prosecutors at the Crown Office, Scotland’s prosecution authority, launched Operation Rubicon last July after the NoW closed down following the Guardian’s disclosure that phone messages for the missing schoolgirl Millie Dowler had been hacked. In a brief statement after Coulson’s arrest on Wednesday morning, a Strathclyde police spokeswoman said: “I can confirm officers from Strathclyde police’s Operation Rubicon team detained a 44-year-old man in London this morning. “It is under section 14 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 on suspicion of committing perjury before the high court in Glasgow.”
Despite his allegations about the NoW’s hacking operation, Sheridan was convicted of perjury by a majority verdict on 23 December 2010. The jury held he had lied when he won a libel trial against the NoW in 2006, over lurid allegations about his sex life and adulterous affairs. The jury at that libel hearing at the court of session in Edinburgh found in Sheridan’s favour, and the then Scottish Socialist party leader was awarded £200,000 in damages. Payment of those damages was delayed after NI appealed against the verdict; that appeal case has been suspended pending the outcome of Operation Rubicon investigation. Speaking before Coulson was charged, Sheridan’s solicitor, Gordon Dangerfield, said he believed that his client’s chances of overturning his perjury conviction were increasing: “We have very strong grounds of appeal and will be lodging a full appeal in due course,” he said. -TheGuardian