PM's ex-aide denies he was hired for Murdoch ties
LONDON – The secretive spin doctor who helped bring Prime Minister David Cameron to power made a rare public appearance Thursday at Britain's media ethics inquiry — denying that he got the job to boost Cameron's clout with Rupert Murdoch's powerful media empire.
Andy Coulson, who edited Murdoch's now-defunct tabloid News of the World when its illegal phone hacking was first exposed, bridled when asked if Cameron had hired him because his Murdoch connections could help gain newspapers' backing.
"Well, they wouldn't hurt," Coulson said of his connections. "But I didn't ever express the view that they would guarantee any kind of support."
Coulson told the judge-led inquiry that there was no dealmaking "grand conspiracy" among politicians and journalists. But he conceded that politicians and the press had grown too close.
"The prime minister himself has said that he thinks it got too cozy, and I'm not minded to disagree with him," Coulson said.
The appearance of Coulson — and testimony due Friday from ex-Murdoch executive Rebekah Brooks, Cameron's friend and neighbor — have brought Britain's phone hacking scandal knocking on the door of 10 Downing Street.
Thursday's session tried to untangle Cameron's ties to Coulson, who left the News of the World in 2007 after reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for hacking the phones of royal aides.
He became Cameron's media chief later the same year, helping return the Conservatives to power in the May 2010 national election. He quit 10 Downing St. in January 2011 as the hacking scandal intensified.
Coulson repeated his assertion that as editor of one of the nation's leading tabloids he did not know that News of the World employees were hacking voicemail messages of celebrities, politicians and crime victims.
He said Cameron had asked him about phone hacking before he was hired. "I was able to repeat what I had said publicly, that I knew nothing about the Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire case in terms of what they did," Coulson said.
It was a carefully worded answer, one of many. For two and a half hours, Coulson responded to questions in measured phrases and deadpan tones, prompting frustrated inquiry lawyer Robert Jay to ask him not to be so literal.
Coulson's appearance revived several questions about Cameron's controversial decision to hire the former tabloid editor:
— Why did no one ask Coulson about hacking again after The Guardian newspaper made new claims in 2009 about phone hacking by the News of the World (Cameron's office declined to comment on this claim by Coulson).
— Why was Coulson not subjected to the highest level of security screening when he was hired at Downing St. — and why was he given unsupervised access to top secret material anyway? (Cameron spokesman Steve Field said that Coulson had been vetted to "security check" level, which allowed access to documents marked secret, and occasional access to papers marked top secret. He said Coulson was not initially cleared to a higher level, amid a drive to reduce the number of government staff with the highest clearance).
— Why did Coulson fail to tell Downing Street that he held 40,000 pounds ($65,000) worth of stock in Murdoch's News Corp., his former employer? (He apologized for the oversight).
Coulson also denied helping grease the wheels for Murdoch's long-desired takeover of broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting. He said he had never discussed the issue with government ministers or Murdoch lobbyists. Murdoch owns 39 percent of BSkyB but dropped his bid for the rest after the hacking scandal erupted last year.
The inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson has already examined newspapers' relations with the public and the police.
Leveson said Thursday that he would now investigate whether the media organizations' relationships with politicians had "got out of hand."
British politicians of all parties for years have sought the support of newspapers — especially Murdoch's best-selling tabloids, whose backing was credited with the power to swing elections. As the hacking scandal has unfolded, unease has grown about what favors the newspapers may have received in return.
Coulson insisted Murdoch had never told him what party the News of the World should support while he was the paper's editor between 2003 and 2007. He said the media mogul was a "warm and supportive" boss, but was in only sporadic contact.
Cameron — whose popularity is already sagging amid national economic gloom — faces further embarrassment Friday, with an appearance at the inquiry by Brooks, another ex-News of the World editor and former chief of Murdoch's British newspapers.
The Murdoch-owned Times of London newspaper has reported that Brooks has retained supportive text messages from the prime minister, a personal friend, neighbor and occasional riding companion in the upmarket rural enclave of Chipping Norton.
There is an irony in Cameron's discomfort. It was the prime minister who asked Leveson to lead an inquiry to sift through the fallout of the hacking scandal that has rocked Britain's establishment and rattled Murdoch's News Corp. with revelations of widespread journalistic malpractice.
The inquiry has heard from reporters, police and public figures in an effort to understand why nothing was done earlier to stop the phone hacking.
Murdoch shut the 168-year-old News of the World in July after evidence emerged that it had intercepted the phone messages of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.
Murdoch has so far paid out millions to settle lawsuits from 60 actors, athletes, politicians and other public figures whose voicemails were hacked. Dozens more lawsuits have been filed.
Coulson and Brooks are among more than 40 people who have been arrested and questioned by police about tabloid wrongdoing. Neither has been charged.
Associated Press Writer David Stringer contributed to this report.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://twitter.com/JillLawless