Cameron's ex-media chief denies trying to cover up hacking

LONDON, April 23 Wed Apr 23, 2014 9:50am EDT

LONDON, April 23 (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron's ex-media chief told a London court on Wednesday he had not tried to cover up phone-hacking at the Rupert Murdoch paper he once edited, but said he had not offered detectives any information either.

Andy Coulson, who was Cameron's head of communications until 2011, is on trial accused of conspiracy to hack voicemail messages on mobile phones whilst he was editor of Murdoch's now defunct News of the World tabloid. He denies the charge.

Giving evidence for a fifth day at the Old Bailey, Coulson said he had not put up any barriers to a police investigation following the arrest of the paper's royal editor Clive Goodman in August 2006 and private detective Glenn Mulcaire.

However, he told the jury he had not carried out any internal inquiries himself and had relied on advice from the company's lawyer that there was no evidence others were involved.

"I didn't cover up anything," Coulson said. "I took the view that the police would go where the police would go - that it wasn't for us to interfere with that.

"I can't sit here and say I volunteered information because I didn't. I didn't want to make the situation worse than it was."

Goodman pleaded guilty to phone-hacking in November 2006 and for years afterwards News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch's News Corp., said he was a lone "rogue reporter" and that no one else at the tabloid was involved.

However, police re-opened their investigations in 2011 and Murdoch shut down the paper a few months later. Since then four former journalists have admitted phone-hacking offences.

Coulson said that up until Goodman's arrest nobody had any idea that voicemail interception was illegal, and that the paper's lawyer said the law that was apparently broken was designed to catch terrorists.

"He was shocked that this had happened," he said.

Coulson had also called Murdoch himself.

"I had a very brief conversation with him in which I told him that Clive Goodman had been arrested. I wasn't able to tell him much more at that stage," Coulson said.

"He said that the most valuable thing that a newspaper has is the trust of its readers and that's something that stayed in my mind."

Last week, Coulson told the court another reporter had played him hacked voicemail messages left by former Home Secretary David Blunkett two years earlier, and his lawyer asked him if Goodman's arrest had prompted him to ask whether these were linked to Mulcaire.

"I asked if Nine Consultancy (Mulcaire's firm) had been involved in the Blunkett story in any way and the answer came back 'no,'" Coulson told the court.

"LONE WOLF"

In evidence he has given, Goodman said Coulson and other News International executives knew all about hacking and, fearing that after his arrest he might spill the beans, had pressured him to plead guilty, and take the blame as a "lone wolf".

Coulson denied this and also denied issuing Goodman with a series of "instructions or demands" during a meeting they had the week after the arrest.

He said the News International lawyer had looked at Goodman's claims others at the paper had links to Mulcaire.

"There was no evidence at that stage that linked other news editors to voicemail interception," he said.

In the days before Goodman entered a guilty plea, the court was told there were a number of email exchanges between Coulson and other newspaper executives in which he voiced concern that any comment issued by the paper afterwards could "cause him (Goodman) to phrase his own statement in a problematic way".

Coulson said he had nothing specific in mind but was worried Goodman might say something difficult or untrue.

On the actual day Goodman pleaded guilty in court, Coulson emailed Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the sister daily paper the Sun and later chief executive of News International, in which he mentioned that "things were going so well".

Asked what he meant, Coulson said this had referred to media coverage.

"It was a disastrous day for the News of the World and for Clive Goodman and as it turns out for me," he said. "Up until this point, the media coverage had been pretty straight and hadn't exploded in a way some had feared."

Coulson and Brooks both deny charges of conspiracy to hack phones, and both former editors and Goodman also reject accusations relating to illegal payments to public officials. Four others are also on trial, and the case continues. (Editing by Stephen Addison)