London (AFP) – Andy Coulson, the former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and one-time top aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron, was jailed for 18 months on Friday for his role in the phone-hacking scandal that closed the tabloid.
The sentence passed by a judge at the Old Bailey court in London caps a stunning fall from grace for 46-year-old Coulson, who once enjoyed access to the heights of the British establishment.
Four former colleagues at the now-defunct tabloid received shorter sentences for hacking the mobile phone voicemails of thousands of royals, celebrities and politicians in what prosecutors called a “criminal enterprise”.
Cameron — who was forced to make a public apology after Coulson was convicted last week at the end of an eight-month trial — said on Friday that the sentence showed “no one is above the law”.
Murdoch shut down the News of the World in July 2011 amid public outrage after it emerged that Britain’s biggest selling paper had illegally accessed the voicemails of a murdered schoolgirl.
Judge John Saunders said Coulson was receiving the longest jail term because of his senior role at the paper.
“Mr Coulson has to take the major share of the blame for phone hacking at the News of the World. He knew about it, he encouraged it when he should have stopped it,” the judge said.
Former News of the World news editor Greg Miskiw and chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck were each sentenced to six months imprisonment for phone hacking.
Journalist James Weatherup and private detective Glenn Mulcaire each received suspended sentences and were ordered to perform community service.
All four had previously pleaded guilty.
Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Murdoch’s British newspaper arm and editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003, was cleared of all charges at the trial, along with her husband and three other people.
Coulson was editor of the News of the World from 2003 to 2007, when he resigned after Mulcaire and former royal editor Clive Goodman were jailed in the first ever phone-hacking prosecutions.
He always insisted he knew nothing of their activities and was hired months later by Cameron, whose Conservative party was then in opposition, as his communications chief.
Coulson resigned from that job in 2011 when the hacking scandal blew up again.
During mitigation hearings this week ahead of the sentencing, Coulson blamed lawyers at the tabloid for failing to tell him that phone-hacking was illegal.
But the judge said this was no defence in law.
“The evidence is clear that there was a very great deal of phone hacking while Andy Coulson was editor,” he said.
The trial itself ranged from the scandalous to the arcane, hearing evidence that Brooks and married father-of-three Coulson had an affair, before delving into months of hearings on the workings of the newspaper.
Brooks said last week that she felt “vindicated” and that her thoughts were with colleagues still facing legal action.
But the verdicts heaped embarrassment on Cameron.
He reacted to the sentence in a statement on Friday, saying: “What it says is that it’s right that justice should be done, and that no one is above the law, as I’ve always said.”
Last week he admitted it was the “wrong decision” to take on Coulson, although he denied ignoring warnings about the journalist’s activities at the News of the World.
Cameron was then rebuked by the judge for speaking out about the case, one of the most expensive in British criminal history, before it was finished.
The prosecution has asked for £750,000 ($1.3 million) in legal costs from Coulson and the others.
Coulson and Goodman also face a retrial on charges of paying a police officer for royal telephone directories, after the jury in the original trial failed to reach a verdict.
The phone-hacking scandal prompted a major judge-led inquiry on the reform of Britain’s notoriously raucous press.
AFP Photo/Cyril Villemain