Leveson Inquiry: Coulson 'held News Corp shares while PM's aide'

Andy Coulson admitted he did not declare shares in Newscorp while working at No 10

Andy Coulson has told the Leveson Inquiry he held shares in News Corporation worth £40,000 while working as the prime minister's press chief.

The former News of the World editor resigned from his Downing Street role in January 2011 amid a row about phone hacking at the News of the World (NoW).

In his witness statement, he said he only considered a possible conflict of interest over the shares after he quit.

There was no "grand conspiracy" between the government and the media, he said.

Asked if he had seen any contact between Prime Minister David Cameron and the media he regarded as too close, he said: "I look at it from the perspective of whether or not there was improper conversations or a deal done, which I think is all part of this sort of grand conspiracy that sort of sits over this idea.

"I never saw a conversation, was party to a conversation that to my mind was inappropriate in that way."

Mr Coulson said he had been troubled by what he saw as a suggestion at the inquiry that "friendship is always based on some ulterior motive".

Potential for conflict

When a witness declares in his statement that you are a "thoroughly decent, moral man", you can probably breathe a sigh of relief.

David Cameron, so described by Andy Coulson, will have seen his former employee's statement in advance. Mr Coulson's evidence will not have perturbed him greatly. But it has raised more questions about their relationship.

There's likely to be a renewed focus on the nature of the checks the Tories made before Mr Coulson was appointed in 2007 and the fact that the prime minister didn't challenge his communications chief further about his knowledge of phone hacking as more allegations were made.

And then there are Andy Coulson's News Corp shares, which no-one in Downing Street knew about.

After Mr Coulson, comes Rebekah Brooks. What, if any damage, will she inflict on David Cameron?

Speaking of his share holding, Mr Coulson said in his statement: "Since resigning from my role as Downing Street communications director l have given thought to one issue which I now accept could have raised the potential for conflict."

Mr Coulson added: "I was never asked about any share or stock holdings and because I knew that I wasn't involved in any commercial issues, including the BSkyB bid, it never occurred to me that there could be a conflict of interest."

In his witness statement, he said: "In retrospect I wish I had paid more attention to it."

Mr Coulson told the inquiry he could not remember dealing with communications issues from the BSkyB bid other than the Daily Telegraph's revelation that Business Secretary Vince Cable suggested he was "going to war" on Mr Murdoch.

The prime minister's official spokesman said it had been Mr Coulson's responsibility to declare the share holding when he started working for Mr Cameron, in compliance with the Civil Service Code.

BBC correspondent Robin Brant said it would have been the then permanent secretary at Downing Street, Jeremy Heywood, who would have ultimately been responsible for ensuring compliance.

In other evidence:

  • Mr Coulson did see top-secret information and attend meetings of the National Security Council where issues like Afghanistan and counter-terrorism are discussed
  • He denied he was hired as David Cameron's communications chief because of his links to News International
  • He said David Cameron himself had said relations between the press and politicians had got "too cosy" and he was "not minded to disagree with him"

Mr Coulson resigned as editor of the NoW in January 2007 after its royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was jailed for illegally accessing the voicemail of three Buckingham Palace officials.

He became Mr Cameron's director of communications while the Tories were in opposition in May 2007.

He moved into government when the coalition was formed in May 2010 and resigned in January 2011, blaming ongoing coverage of the phone-hacking scandal.

'Elephant in the room'

Chancellor George Osborne first approached him to ask how he thought the party could get elected, Mr Coulson said.

Start Quote

Coulson emerged mostly unscathed - and so, by and large, did his former masters in politics and News International”

End Quote

Nick Robinson: No fireworks. But no end yet

"I went into it with a degree of reluctance. I wasn't thinking about politics at all. I gave an outline of what the party needed to do," he said.

Mr Coulson said Mr Osborne had "maybe" asked about his links to News International but denied inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC's assertion that it was "the elephant in the room".

The prime minister has repeatedly defended his appointment of Mr Coulson, who has always said he knew nothing about phone hacking under his editorship of the NoW.

Mr Coulson told the inquiry the subject of jailed royal editor Clive Goodman did come up during further talks he had with senior Tories about taking the job.

The subject also came up in a conversation with Mr Cameron.

"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," he told the inquiry.

He said he had explained his background "should not be seen as some sort of guarantee" of the support of the NoW or the Sun.

Frustration

Mr Coulson said they had tried to talk to as many newspapers as possible as the Tories had an "electoral mountain" to climb.

The PM "frequently" expressed frustration about the amount of time he needed to spend with figures from the media, Mr Coulson said.

Mr Coulson revealed that he attended meetings of the national security council during his time as director of communications.

Mr Cameron's spokesman said it would have been Mr Heywood's responsibility to allow Mr Coulson access to the most top secret information even though he did not have the top level of security clearance, known as developed vetting (DV).

Andy Coulson denied that links between politicians and News International were too close

The spokesman said Mr Coulson had not received DV as the permanent secretary had made a "conscious decision to reduce the number of people" who had that level of security clearance.

"Security-checked people have top secret sight occasionally", he said, adding: "Some people need to see some top secret material sometimes."

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks is due to give evidence on Friday.

Both she and Mr Coulson have been arrested and bailed as part of Operation Weeting - the Met Police's investigation into phone hacking at the now-closed tabloid.

They have also been arrested and bailed as part of the investigation into corrupt payments to public officials, Operation Elveden, which is being overseen by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Inquiry lawyers will not be allowed to ask Mr Coulson or Mrs Brooks any questions that could prejudice the police investigation into phone hacking or any future trials.

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