Andy Coulson cleared of perjury as Scottish court case collapses
Judge agrees with defence argument that Coulson’s alleged lies about phone hacking were not material to main case at Tommy Sheridan trial
David Cameron’s former director of communications, Andy Coulson, was cleared of perjury on Wednesday when a Scottish judge dismissed a case in which he was accused of lying about his knowledge of phone hacking at the News of the World.
Lord Burns told Coulson at the high court in Edinburgh he had been formally acquitted on charges relating to evidence he gave about hacking at the paper when he was its editor, because the alleged lies were not relevant to the case.
Coulson was charged with lying under oath when he appeared as a witness during the trial for perjury of former Scottish Socialist party leader Tommy Sheridan in 2010.
Burns ruled that, under Scottish law, perjury can only be committed if the alleged lie had a material effect on the outcome of the previous trial. “Not every lie amounts to perjury,” Burns told jurors, in a hearing that lasted less than 20 minutes.
The judge’s dramatic decision came following five days of legal consideration and deliberations in which Coulson’s defence advocate, Murdo MacLeod QC, successfully argued that Scottish prosecutors had misunderstood Scots law on perjury.
Burns had delivered his ruling on Monday morning with the jury absent from court but agreed to a crown request for time to consider an appeal. The ruling could not be reported during this time. He told Coulson, 47, from Preston in Kent, on Monday that, pending the appeal: “I must suspend the acquittal that I have just given.”
Despite earlier suggestions the prosecution was planning to lodge an urgent appeal on Wednesday, the Crown Office decided late on Tuesday not to contest Burns’s decision.
Burns told jurors that he was throwing out the case because “the crown had not led sufficient evidence” to satisfy him that the evidence he gave about hacking in the Sheridan trial in 2010 was relevant.
Delivering his ruling, he said he had “sustained the arguments in favour of the accused” and told Coulson: “I acquit you of the charge.”
“Thank you,” said Coulson calmly before walking out of court three.
Speaking outside the court, Coulson insisted that he had never lied and the prosecution had been unwarranted.
“This prosecution was always wrong,” he said. “I didn’t lie and the prosecution, in my view, was a gross waste of public money. I’m just delighted after four pretty testing years … my family have had a good day.”
Burns agreed with MacLeod’s case that Coulson’s alleged lies under oath were not material to the main case against Sheridan at that trial. Therefore, it failed to meet the required definition of perjury.
In his judgment, Burns said: “I consider that the false evidence alleged in this indictment was not relevant evidence at the original trial and the charge of perjury in the indictment is irrelevant.”
Cameron’s official spokesman said he had “noted and seen” the acquittal but said it was a matter for the courts. Asked whether he would consider giving Coulson his old job back, she said: “He’s got a director of communications who is indeed taking on a broader role in Number 10.”
The jury, which was sent home a week ago, heard three senior NoW executives accuse Coulson of knowing about hacking and having direct knowledge of the £104,000-a-year contract awarded to Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator convicted in 2007 of helping hack royal family mobile phones for the then NoW royal editor, Clive Goodman.
Coulson has always denied knowing phone hacking was rife at the NoW and said that he only knew of one specific incident of phone hacking, involving David Blunkett.
Burns’s ruling, which came after only six days of evidence in a trial that was due to last for four weeks, ends a four-year ordeal for Coulson that began soon after he resigned as head of communications at No 10 in January 2011, less than a month after Sheridan’s conviction for perjury. Coulson will now be free to try to revive his career as there are no outstanding charges against him either in England or Scotland.
The jury in Edinburgh was not told that Coulson had already served seven months in jail, some of it in high-security prison Belmarsh, after being found guilty at the Old Bailey last year of being involved in a conspiracy to hack phones when he was editor of the News of the World.
Coulson’s acquittal, which comes three years after he was arrested by Scottish detectives at his London home, is a severe blow to Police Scotland and senior prosecutors in Edinburgh.
Police launched the Operation Rubicon investigation into alleged hacking, bugging and Data Protection Act breaches by journalists in July 2011 after the NoW was closed by Rupert Murdoch.
In March, after spending nearly £1m on police salaries under Operation Rubicon, investigating the cases involving 23 hacking victims in Scotland, Police Scotland confirmed that four people had been charged and reported to prosecutors. All four have now been cleared, with Coulson the only suspect to stand trial.
Legal sources confirmed on Wednesday evening that the collapse of Coulson’s trial for perjury also meant the end of Operation Rubicon without any successful prosecutions.
Police Scotland refused to comment but the Crown Office told the Guardian on Tuesday that the only three remaining cases against other News UK staff in Scotland had been dropped without a trial in the past few weeks.
“As far as we’re concerned, Operation Rubicon ends with the ending of proceedings against Coulson,” said a Crown Office source.
The Crown Office said that prosecutors had dropped charges of perjury against Bob Bird, former editor of the News of the World’s Scottish edition, and charges of perverting the course of justice and other offences against Doug Wight, a news executive with the NoW in Glasgow.
On 1 May, the Crown Office disclosed it was no longer taking action against Gill Smith, a news editor at the Scottish Sun, who had been charged with offences in 2000 and 2001 under Operation Rubicon.
Sheridan was prosecuted in 2010 for lying in a defamation case he pursued against the News of the World after it reported he had visited a swingers’ club in Manchester.
He was found guilty of lying in that case and sent to jail. However, during the trial Sheridan, who conducted his own defence, called Coulson as a defence witness and quizzed him about his knowledge of hacking. Coulson had denied he was aware of a culture of hacking when he was at the helm and it was this that triggered this prosecution.
MacLeod successfully argued that the evidence given by Coulson could not have caused Sheridan to have been acquitted in 2010. “With the greatest respect to the advocate depute [the crown prosecutor] – and I mean no criticism of him – he is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” MacLeod told the court.
One of Coulson’s close friends, the public relations consultant Gary Farrow, said he predicted he would quietly celebrate with his wife and two children on Wednesday night. “Andy and his family have been through absolute hell for the last three years. He has an amazing wife and I know that all he will want to is to concentrate on her and his boys,” said Farrow.
Aamer Anwar, the civil rights lawyer who acted for Sheridan in 2010 and campaigned for the launch of Operation Rubicon, said he was very disappointed with the collapse of the trial.
He said his greatest concern was the inability by police to prove that other journalists in Scotland were guilty of hacking and data protection breaches, which had happened on “an industrial scale”.
“The acquittal of Andrew Coulson is an unsatisfactory outcome for many whose lives were destroyed by the NoW, but it was right for the Crown Office to pursue a prosecution – nobody is above the law,” Anwar said.
“However, it is of real concern that a spotlight on Andrew Coulson has meant Operation Rubicon failed to pursue other journalists in Scotland who engaged in criminality.”
Sheridan was furious, and urged the Scottish government to order a public inquiry since no one would now be prosecuted for any hacking in Scotland. He said the crown case had been a shambles.
“They have embarrassed Scotland and they embarrassed the legal and justice system in Scotland,” Sheridan said. “They’ve let down ordinary taxpayers whose money was used to conduct a four-year investigation but was not carried out properly.”
A Crown Office spokesman said: “Andrew Coulson was a defence witness at the trial of Tommy Sheridan. He gave his evidence without objection as to relevancy.
“The crown indicted Coulson on the basis that he lied during parts of his evidence, in particular that he had no knowledge of phone hacking.
“The trial judge in the Coulson trial, at the conclusion of the prosecution evidence, ruled that this evidence was irrelevant and therefore could not found the basis for a prosecution for perjury.
“This brings proceedings to an end.”