DAVID Cameron was rebuked by a judge yesterday for almost bringing about the collapse of the phone hacking trial by publicly commenting on his former director of communications’ conviction while the jury was still out.
Mr Justice Saunders expressed his “concern” at the Prime Minister’s apology for hiring Andy Coulson in 2007, which was issued immediately after the former tabloid editor was found guilty of plotting to hack phones at the News of the World in the six years before he worked for the Conservatives.
Mr Cameron led the way in what the senior judge described as “open season” on political reaction which saw the Chancellor George Osborne, Labour leader Ed Miliband and others follow suit.
At the time, the jury was still deliberating on two remaining counts against Coulson, 46, of allegedly conspiring with former royal editor Clive Goodman, 56, to commit misconduct in a public office, in relation to paying police officers for two royal phone directories.
Yesterday the judge turned down a bid by Coulson’s legal team to excuse the jury from deciding on the outstanding charges. Coulson’s lawyers had argued that he could no longer receive a fair trial amid such a “maelstrom of reporting”.
An hour later, the jurors returned to say they had failed to reach a majority verdict and were discharged by the judge after nine days’ deliberations at the end of an eight-month trial.
Coulson faces up to two years in prison when he returns to the Old Bailey for sentencing on Monday. Mr Justice Saunders will also decide whether Coulson and Goodman should face a retrial on the charges that were dismissed.
On Tuesday, Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International – who had an on-off affair with Coulson – was cleared of all charges. Her husband, Charlie Brooks, and former personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, were also acquitted. Yesterday, the judge said he had asked the Prime Minister for an explanation and was told by his principal private secretary Chris Martin: “The Prime Minister was responding to the guilty verdict on hacking charges that had been delivered in open court.”
But Mr Justice Saunders said the Prime Minister had “missed the point” and revealed information the jury had not been told during the trial for legal reasons.
He said: “My sole concern is to ensure that justice is done. Politicians have other imperatives and I understand that. Whether the political imperative was such that statements could not await all the verdicts, I leave to others to judge.
“The press in court have been extremely responsible in their reporting of this case but when politicians regard it as open season, one cannot expect the press to remain silent. I accept that this case is very unusual if not unique, but the situation could occur again and I would urge that discussions take place to try and set up a better system of dealing with it.”
Coulson’s lawyer Timothy Langdale QC had earlier blamed the politicians for putting politics before justice and ignoring the directions of the judge to exercise restraint until all verdicts were in.
“This was an extraordinary situation where the ill-advised and premature intervention by the Prime Minister and others to avoid political damage or make political capital is almost impossible for the jury to ignore. It strikes at the heart of justice,” Mr Langdale said.
“It is astonishing, we say unprecedented, for a Prime Minister to make public comments at such a crucial juncture in trial proceedings.”
He said the comments came from “entrenched party political battles” with no regard for the laws on prejudicing a jury.
But prosecutor Andrew Edis QC argued: “What Mr Cameron said is Mr Coulson told him a lie. What Mr Miliband said is Mr Coulson is a criminal. The jury were satisfied so they were sure Mr Coulson was guilty of count one which makes him to that extent a criminal.
“In coming to that conclusion, they decided he had told them lies for days on end about phone hacking so Mr Cameron was not really telling them anything that they did not know.
“This is probably the most media-savvy jury that has ever tried a criminal case. They have seen the underside of the press. They have heard evidence about relationships between the press and politicians. They know what goes on better than anyone and they are very well placed indeed to discount media comment and to concentrate on the evidence they have heard.”
Following the partial verdict, Mr Cameron had said: “I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson. I did so on the basis of undertakings I was given by him about phone hacking and those turned out not to be the case.
“I always said that if they turned out to be wrong, I would make a full and frank apology and I do that today. I am extremely sorry that I employed him. It was the wrong decision and I am very clear about that.”
Mr Cameron’s official spokesman confirmed that the Prime Minister took legal advice from the government’s senior law officer, Attorney General Dominic Grieve, before making his televised statement.
A spokesman for Labour said Mr Miliband had been careful in his own televised statement not to raise issues of Coulson’s character or the facts of the trial - other than to refer to the former Number 10 director of communications as a “criminal”, a fact which had been established by the jury itself.
“It seems to us that these are matters between the judge and the Prime Minister,” said a senior Labour source.
Cabinet veteran Kenneth Clarke, a QC and a former lord chancellor, described Mr Cameron’s comments as “unwise”.
The hacking trial is not the first time Mr Cameron has fallen foul of an English court for making comments connected to an ongoing trial.
Last year, the Prime Minister was criticised by a judge for publicly supporting Nigella Lawson during the fraud trial of her personal assistants Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo.
Coulson was recruited by Chancellor Mr Osborne to lead the Tory media operation within months of resigning as News of the World (NotW) editor in January 2007 because hacking happened on his watch.
He admitted in court he did not tell the Conservatives what he knew of hacking at the newspaper because he thought they would not have offered him the job.
When Mr Cameron entered Downing Street, he became No10’s chief spin doctor, resigning shortly before he was arrested when the phone hacking scandal erupted again four years later.
The cost to the taxpayer of the hacking trial was at least £1.8 million, the Crown Prosecution Service said last night, while the cost of the Scotland Yard investigations into allegations of illegal newspaper practices stands at around £32.7m
Last night, Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police assistant commissioner – who oversaw the police investigation into hacking at the NoTW – insisted the wide-ranging inquiry had not been “an attack on press freedom”.
She said in a statement: “Throughout the investigation, we have done our best to follow the evidence, without fear or favour. We were conscious of the sensitivities and legal complexities of investigating a national newspaper containing confidential journalistic material.
“This investigation has never been about an attack on press freedom but one to establish whether any criminal offences had been committed, to establish who was responsible for committing them and to bring them to justice. The victims deserved no less.”
Coulson, of Charing, Kent, and Goodman, of Addlestone, Surrey, declined to comment as they left court.