Euan McColm: The race to get Andy Coulson

Coulson leaves the High Court in Edinburgh last Wednesday. Picture: PA
Coulson leaves the High Court in Edinburgh last Wednesday. Picture: PA
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WERE political calculation and cross-border rivalry behind the collapse of the perjury case against a disgraced newspaper editor, asks Euan McColm

IT WAS, said the convicted perjurer Tommy Sheridan, yet more evidence of a grotesque conspiracy against him.

Politician Tommy Sheridan at home in Glasgow, Scotland. Picture: Hemedia

Politician Tommy Sheridan at home in Glasgow, Scotland. Picture: Hemedia

After charges of perjury against Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, were withdrawn on Wednesday, the ex-MSP accused the Crown Office of deliberately undermining its own case. Sheridan saw (or claimed to see) shady dealings in every dark corner.

Coulson had been charged over lies allegedly told while giving evidence in Sheridan’s own perjury trial in 2010, which had come as a result of his victory over the News of the World in a defamation action four years previously.

But at the High Court in Edinburgh last week, Lord Burns told Coulson – who has already served a prison sentence in England for phone hacking offences – that he had no case to answer and was free to go.

The judge’s decision marked the end of a process that has taken four years, and it means that Sheridan’s hopes of overturning his conviction would appear to be dead.

The Crown Office and the CPS got involved in a pissing contest

But questions remain over the Coulson case, most notably: why did it ever get to court in the first place?

According to one person who observed the investigation at close quarters, the ­answer lies in political expediency and tensions between the Crown Office in Scotland and the Crown Prosecution Service in England who were, he claims, “involved in a pissing contest to see who could get Coulson first”.

To make some sense of this, it is necessary to pick up the story back in 2004, when the News of the World published allegations that Sheridan – then a list MSP for Glasgow – had cheated on his wife Gail and visited a swingers’ club in Manchester.

Then a popular public figure who had built his reputation on being a clean-living, devoted family man who put the underdog before anyone else, Sheridan announced his decision to sue. There was a problem, though: the stories were true. Sheridan had presented a carefully stage-managed version of himself to the public while the reality was something altogether different, something far darker.

When Sheridan informed then colleagues in the Scottish Socialist Party that he intended not only to deny the stories about his double life but also to sue the News of the World, the majority were horrified. This was, they warned him, a suicidal course of action.

But, in the summer of 2006, Sheridan sued the paper and won £200,000 in damages. Former friends had testified that he had admitted that he was a swinger, former lovers had been forced to go into intimate detail about the relationships with him, but that decision cast them as liars and Sheridan as the victim of a monstrous plan to destroy his career.

He celebrated victory, vowing to “destroy” those he accused of lying to bring him down, and then set up a breakaway socialist party, Solidarity. It appeared – for a brief time at least – that the politician had saved his own skin. But then, weeks after that defamation victory, a former friend of Sheridan’s – George McNeilage – stepped forward with a crucial new piece of evidence.

McNeilage had secretly videoed Sheridan confessing that the stories in the News of the World were true and explaining his plan to face them down in court. The existence of this video is crucial to the events that saw Coulson charged.

After a lengthy police investigation, Sheridan appeared at the High Court in Glasgow in 2010, charged with perjury; McNeilage’s video was at the centre of both prosecution and defence arguments.

According to Sheridan, the video footage had been faked. Conducting his own defence, Sheridan called Coulson as a witness and asked the former editor if he knew anything about phone hacking.

The former politician had previously suggested he might have been the victim of hacking. If he could establish that he had been, then perhaps he could explain away the detailed information contained in the video as having been cobbled together from details retrieved from his phone.

Coulson denied that hacking had taken place under his watch at the News of the World. Sheridan was found guilty of perjury and jailed for three years.

In July 2011, Sheridan’s then solicitor Aamer Anwar – who, in a curious turn of events, now writes a weekly column for the Sun on Sunday, which replaced the News of the World – and the MP, Tom Watson, attended the headquarters of the now defunct Strathclyde Police to hand in a “dossier” of evidence relating to alleged phone-hacking in Scotland.

The timing of this event would appear crucial to what followed.

At that time, Prime Minister David Cameron was mired in controversy over his connections with News of the World owner Rupert Murdoch, and his decision to employ Coulson as his director of communications, while the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, was under huge pressure.

Anwar and Watson delivered their dossier on 8 July then, on 10 July, Coulson was arrested by officers in England investigating hacking allegations south of the Border.

On 18 July, Sir Paul stepped down from his position at the Met.

A source who observed events closely explained: “There were a set of circumstances that meant things got running fast. You had Cameron and Stephenson under a lot of scrutiny because they hadn’t seemed to take allegations of phone hacking seriously in the past, and you had Scottish police and politicians who didn’t want to make the same mistake.”

Strathclyde Police’s Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House – now the head of Police Scotland – made an unsuccessful application for Sir Paul’s post at the Met, while his officers began an investigation based on the Anwar/Watson complaint.

The source said: “The chief constable was determined that his officers were seen to take this matter seriously because when others hadn’t, they’d paid the price for that.”

Then, said the source, there was the matter of tension between prosecutors north and south of the Border.

“The Crown Office and the CPS got involved in a pissing contest to see who could get Coulson first. The CPS was seen to have screwed things up in the past by not taking ­allegations seriously and the Crown Office was determined to be seen to be acting tough.”

The source added that, while there was a strong desire by House and senior colleagues to act thoroughly, the Crown ­Office was soon directing ­matters.

“Look at the way Coulson was arrested by Scottish cops,” he said. “They flew down to London and did the whole dawn raid on his home. They got maximum publicity, lots of drama, and they were acting under the direction of the Crown Office.”

In the end, the CPS won that particular race and Coulson was tried for phone hacking offences in England and sentenced last July to 18 months in prison. Having served five months of that sentence, Coulson was released on a home detention curfew, which required him to wear an electronic tag.

There was some speculation at the time in Scottish political and legal circles that Coulson’s trial in Scotland might not go ahead.

Some lawyers had called into question the validity of the charges. Whether Coulson had lied or not during the Sheridan trial in denying any knowledge of phone hacking was not, it was pointed out, relevant to the politician’s conviction. And, as one senior MSP put it, “Coulson has already had his life ruined. What’s the point of trying to ruin it a bit more?”

But the case was called on 11 May and began with some of the journalist’s former colleagues giving evidence for the prosecution.

On 1 June, Lord Burns acquitted Coulson, although this decision was not announced until two days later, which allowed the Crown time to consider appealing the decision. It was also announced that the Crown Office would not be proceeding with charges against two other former News of the World employees, Bob Bird and Douglas Wight.

Lord Burns said that for the Crown to have proved Coulson’s guilt, it would have been necessary for it to have proved that the evidence he gave at Sheridan’s trial had had any relevance to the outcome. Coulson, a defence witness, had said nothing in the Sheridan trial that could have been considered relevant to the outcome and he was a free man.

Sheridan was incandescent and turned his fire on the Crown Office.

“They have embarrassed Scotland and they embarrassed the legal and justice system in Scotland,” he said. “They’ve let down ordinary taxpayers whose money was used to conduct a four-year investigation but was not carried out properly.”

But, according to a former friend of Sheridan’s, his outrage was not a result of anger over the cost to the public purse but over the damage the Coulson acquittal had done to his chances of appealing his own conviction and returning to political life, rehabilitated, as a man of good character.

“Tommy’s best chance of persuading an appeal court that he had been the victim of a stitch-up was for Coulson to have been found guilty, because then he might have got some purchase on his argument that the details on the McNeilage tape had been got from voicemail messages.

“It wasn’t that he wanted just to make it seem that Coulson had had an impact on the verdict in his case; he wanted to build up his case that he might have been a victim of hacking and that the video really was a fake. No wonder he’s fizzing.”

Sheridan certainly was “fizzing” when asked about Coulson’s acquittal. He accused the Crown Office of corruption and called for someone’s “head to roll”.

He said: “I think the Crown Office has corruptly tried to hide the basis of the prosecution of myself and my wife.

“They used evidence supplied to them by the News of the World… a corrupt and illegal unit that has now been closed. They used them to try and set me up, and they are trying to cover that up.

“Did they just realise last week that they had to prove relevancy as well?” he asked.

“They’ve spent over £1m of public money, thousands of police hours on a case that apparently they didn’t know what they were doing.

“That is a shambles, and somebody’s head has to roll.”

A spokesman for the Crown Office responded to the decision, saying: “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.”

It was an explanation that threw up its own question: why didn’t the Crown Office realise that its case against Coulson was fatally flawed before getting into court?

That’s something which puzzles James Chalmers, Regis Professor of Law at Glasgow University.

Chalmers said: “It’s difficult to see why things got as far as they did. The Crown must have felt that it would be able to address the issue of whether Coulson’s ­evidence was relevant to Sheridan’s conviction.” And he added pointedly: “But there is no clue as to how that would happen.

“It is legitimate now to ask why they did push this as far as they did. It could be that after the investigation had been completed with all its expense, they thought ‘let’s just see how it goes’.”

Simply seeing “how it goes” may seem a fairly slender reason for attempting to proceed with this major prosecution but, given the background to the case, and the climate in which decisions were taken, it seems as logical an explanation as any.