David Cameron’s former spin doctor denied any “grand conspiracy” between the Government and Murdoch empire as he gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry into press standards.
But yesterday Andy Coulson admitted that he failed to declare a £40,000 shareholding in News Corporation while he was in Downing Street. He also disclosed that Mr Cameron did not directly challenge him about his knowledge of phone hacking at the News of the World after July 2009, despite a stream of revelations indicating the problem went deeper.
The details emerged as Mr Coulson spoke publicly for the first time since being arrested on suspicion of phone hacking and corruption last year.
Mr Cameron could face fresh embarrassment today when ex-News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks takes to the witness box. She is expected to be grilled about her close relations with the premier who reportedly texted to express sympathy when she was forced to quit.
Mr Coulson insisted it had been his decision to resign as News of the World editor after royal reporter Clive Goodman was convicted of phone hacking in January 2007.
He said that within two months Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was courting him to become the Tories’ director of communications. They met for a drink at a London hotel and Mr Cameron called him later that night.
In one key conversation later, Mr Cameron asked Mr Coulson about the case involving Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
He told the inquiry: “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.”
Mr Coulson said Mr Cameron had not sought any further assurances over his links to the phone-hacking scandal after July 2009, despite allegations about pay-offs for victims starting to emerge.
The former journalist said it had not been suggested by Mr Cameron or Mr Osborne but he explained to them that his background at News International would not be a key to support.
He was asked about Mr Cameron’s admission last July that politicians and the media had become “too close”. He said the premier had not expressed similar regret in private before that.
Mr Cameron “frequently” expressed frustration about the amount of time he needed to spend with figures from the media. But one exception appears to have been Ms Brooks, whose husband Charlie was a contemporary of Mr Cameron at Eton.
Mr Coulson said he had sold all shareholdings in News International by May 2010. But he accepted there was a potential conflict over restricted stock in News Corporation that he was granted as part of his severance package.
That stock “vested” in August 2010 and is worth about £40,000, although Mr Coulson stressed that he did not know the value while he was working for Mr Cameron.
“Whilst I didn’t consider my holding of this stock to represent any kind of conflict of interest, in retrospect I wish I had paid more attention to it,” he said in his statement. 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.”
He said he was not involved in the News Corp BSkyB bid “in any way, shape or form”.
The only connection he had with it were communications issues following revelations that Business Secretary Vince Cable had suggested he was “going to war” against Mr Murdoch.
Mr Coulson sought to play down the closeness of his personal relationship with Mr Murdoch.
He said he had “thoroughly enjoyed” working for the media mogul who had always been “warm and supportive”.
But he added: “I wouldn’t want to overstate it. He was supportive to me as an editor and I enjoyed working in his company.”
Mr Coulson also said he still classed Ms Brooks as a friend, but added: “We haven’t spoken for a while, for obvious reasons.”