Day 96: Andy Coulson left the News of the World with a £600,000 pay-off, but with little memory of what turned out to be one of its most important stories: the disappearance of Milly Dowler, the phone hacking trial heard today.
In his seventh day in the witness box, Mr Coulson, former editor of News of the World, said that he had received two years’ salary plus a month for every year of his service at News International.
He did not dispute the assertion of David Spens QC that he had received £600,000 on his resignation in January 2007, when he took “ultimate responsibility” for hacking by the paper’s royal editor Clive Goodman.
“I can’t remember exactly what my salary was. I’m happy to go away and check,” Mr Coulson told Mr Spens.
The lawyer, representing Mr Goodman, replied: “We’ve seen it on a document.”
Cross-examined by chief prosecutor Andrew Edis, QC, Mr Coulson said he could remember only vaguely that the NoW was trying to check a story that Milly Dowler was alive and working at a factory in the Midlands.
The court has heard that in 2002 the paper had hacked into the missing 13-year-old’s phone and heard a message about a factory interview, which had been mistakenly left by a recruitment agency.
Asked whether he knew that 10 NoW journalists were working on the story – three in its Wapping HQ and seven in Telford – Mr Coulson told the court: “I can’t remember a conversation about dispatching reporters.”
But he said he thought the theory that a 13-year-old was working in a factory was “nonsense”.
Mr Coulson, acting editor of the paper in the absence of Rebekah Brooks, explained: “I remember being told, but can’t remember at what stage there was this theory – and I believed it was nonsense.”
Mr Edis asked: “Who told you?”
The former No 10 communications chief replied: “I can’t remember.”
Mr Edis said: “What did you say?”
Mr Coulson told the jury: “I can’t remember precisely, but my reaction was I believed this was nonsense.”
The News of the World’s first edition carried a story about the recruitment agency’s message, but it was pushed back in final editions – without a quotation of the message – after the police said it was likely to be a hoax.
Asked whether he had read the page nine story, Mr Coulson accepted that he may have read it, but not that he must have read it.
While she was holidaying in Dubai, Mrs Brooks called the editor’s office several times in the two days prior to publication of the story in April 2002.
Mr Edis challenged Mr Coulson: “Did you talk to Mrs Brooks on the phone that ween about the ‘missing Surrey schoolgirl?”
“I don’t remember doing so,” he replied.
He agreed that he was probably the executive who decided to move the story further back in the paper, but only because it looks like a weak story and because the “mix” of the paper was not right.
“That means you were aware of the content?” Mr Edis said.
“It means I was aware of the story,” the journalist replied.
Pressed by Mr Edis, Mr Coulson said it was “possible” he may have read the full story.
Without waiting for a reply, Mr Edis said: “Do you remember editing a newspaper?”
Later in the tense and terse exchanges, Mr Edis challenged the former editor about his evidence that he had been told about the interception of David Blunkett’s voicemails, but had run a front-page story based on them anyway, because he felt it was in the public interest.
Mr Coulson again recounted to the trial that he had been “shocked” to learn of the “clear breach of privacy” from the paper’s chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck in a phone call in July 2004 – and had told him to stop.
Asked whether he asked Thurlbeck any other questions during the call, Mr Coulson said: “I may have done but I don’t remember doing so.”
Mr Edis said: “You never asked him how he got the voicemails?”
Mr Coulson, who was on holiday in Italy at the time, replied: “I can’t remember that conversation, no”.
He went on:
“I assumed that Neville had done this himself, and whether I asked him that in my conversation I don’t remember. I can’t give you a verbatim on the conversation in Italy – it was too long ago.”
He denied that he had only admitted he had been told about the Home Secretary’s voicemails because the evidence later produced by the police about them was “overwhelming.”
He said he had made a no comment interview to the police in July 2011 because he was following legal advice.
Mr Edis protested that he was capable of making up his own mind, telling him: “You’re a powerful and intelligent man. Well, you were powerful – but you’re still intelligent.”
Mr Coulson said he had been traumatised by his arrest and also felt “profoundly depressed” about the just-announced closure of the News of the World.
The prosecutor remarked that not a single note made by Mr Coulson during his seven years at the News of the World had been recovered by the police. Mr Coulson told the court he only occasionally kept notes while editing, saying: “I was never a big note-taker.”
Asked if he had spoken to Mrs Brooks on the day of his arrest, 8 July 2011 – the same day Mrs Brooks allegedly removed her notebooks from NI’s archive – Mr Coulson replied: “I can’t remember.”
“Did you speak to her?” Mr Edis pressed – to which Mr Coulson again replied: “I can’t remember… it’s possible.”
The NoW’s former managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, had a medical problem that impaired his memory, Mr Edis told the former editor, adding: “There’s nothing the matter with your memory, is there?”
“I have no medical problem, no,” Mr Coulson, 46, replied.
He, Mrs Brooks and Mr Kuttner deny conspiring to hack phones. On Monday, Mr Coulson will be asked about alleged payments to police guarding the Royal Family.