Andy Coulson used Milly Dowler PI to spy on JK Rowling, High Court hears

EXCLUSIVE: Andy Coulson used Milly Dowler PI to spy on JK Rowling, High Court hears

23 Dec. 2020

New evidence: the Royal Courts of Justice on London’s The Strand (c) PA/ Creative Commons

ANDY Coulson put Harry Potter author JK Rowling under criminal private investigator surveillance when he edited the News of the World newspaper for Rupert Murdoch, the High Court in London heard.

Newly disclosed documents allegedly show the disgraced former editor, who went on to become Downing Street communications director before being jailed at the Old Bailey for phone hacking in 2014, personally targeted the Hogwarts writer.

The revelation emerged late last month in the latest hearing of the Various vs News Group Newspapers phone hacking litigation at the Royal Courts of Justice and can be reported following two recent attempts by Coulson, 52, to deny his crimes at the tabloid.

Snooped: Author JK Rowling (r) who was allegedly targeted specifically on Andy Coulson’s behalf for unlawful private investigation. (c) NGN Ltd/ PA

First, in a detailed interview about his phone hacking disgrace, Coulson told GQ magazine in September that his mistakes at the paper were ones of “leadership” rather than “criminal” – a view rejected by a jury of 12 which convicted him of a hacking conspiracy.

Coulson told the interviewer, his long-term Murdoch colleague and friend, The Sun columnist Jane Moore: “Well I will always argue that the mistakes were not criminal, because that’s what I spent a lot of time standing in a witness box arguing and because it’s what I believe. But there are a whole bunch of mistakes from a leadership point of view, I was the boss.”

He added: “I didn’t accept the verdict but I certainly accepted its consequences.”

And in a second interview last weekend in the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, Coulson described in detail his time inside at Category A Belmarsh prison, while making further claims of innocence of criminal behaviour, which were reported unchallenged by the paper’s Chief Interviewer Decca Aitkenhead.

Convicted: Andy Coulson outside the Old Bailey in London at his phone hacking trial (c) PA

However, Coulson’s interviews are being called “Trumpian” attempts to “rewrite history” by a legal expert – just as one of Britain’s leading media judges has heard new disclosure identifies Coulson personally over the commission and payment of a criminal PI to spy on Ms Rowling.

Media Law Professor, Paul Wragg, of the University of Leeds, told Byline Investigates: “In these interviews, Coulson is trying to exculpate himself of criminal wrongdoing at the News of the World.

“In doing so, he is whitewashing the 2014 findings of the jury in his trial at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, which found him guilty after hearing wide-ranging evidence and first-hand witness testimony that was tested to the highest criminal standards, while he enjoyed the Defence of a top-level legal team, paid for by Mr Murdoch.

“If accepted, this new evidence in the Civil case just re-affirms the jury’s guilty verdict and suggests that Coulson is now, six years later, making a somewhat Trumpian attempt to re-write history.”

(c) University of Leeds

A hearing on November 26 and 27 in the long-running civil hacking case, which has cost Rupert Murdoch’s companies an estimated £1bn and rising, heard how Coulson is implicated again by the handwritten notes of his former right-hand man at the News of the World, Greg Miskiw.

Miskiw, who was jailed for six months in 2014 having pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hack phones while he was Coulson’s Assistant Editor, wrote that he was instructing Glenn Mulcaire – the man who also hacked murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, sparking his 168-year-old paper’s stunning demise – at Coulson’s direction.

David Sherborne, barrister for some 65 current Claimants including Prince Harry who are suing Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN) for stealing their private information to exploit for tabloid stories, said: “What it shows is Greg Miskiw was commissioning Mr Mulcaire to do work specifically for Mr Coulson.”

Manuscript: Former News of the World Assistant Editor Greg Miskiw allegedly made the note about Coulson’s instructions (c) Byline Investigates

The note, which had lain hidden in a secretive NGN company archive of “hard copy” evidence in Enfield, North London, for a decade, is important as it proves that Murdoch’s top editorial employees knew of and directed years of serious criminal news-gathering at his UK papers, according to Mr Sherborne.

Arguing that without the recent disclosure from the Enfield Archive, Coulson’s involvement in relation to Rowling would never have been known, therefore highlighting the importance of the archive’s secrets to other litigants suing the company, Sherborne added: “[It says] ‘information for AC’, so that shows… the extent to which there was [high level] knowledge of these activities.”

As he led Judge Mr Justice Mann through the recently-disclosed handwritten manuscript, Sherborne added: “Then to the right you will see ‘author – for Andy Coulson’. That’s JK Rowling, and it says ‘author’, and then says ‘for Andy Coulson’.”

It is understood that Ms Rowling, one of the most successful authors of all time with the movie and other franchising of her Harry Potter series, and her work writing as Robert Galbraith, has yet to decide to bring an action against NGN for misusing her private information.

However, she was a core participant in the Leveson Inquiry into Press abuse in 2011, at which she told how she was “driven out” of her home by the intrusions of tabloid journalists, and was a vocal critic when in 2013 Coulson’s former boss David Cameron refused to implement the Inquiry’s recommendations for a Royal Charter-approved independent Press regulator.

Core participant: JW Rowling giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry into Press misconduct in November 2011

On November 27, the High Court also heard how Coulson’s direct involvement was flagged up by the News of the World’s accounts department as it arranged for the tabloid’s former Managing Editor Stuart Kuttner to approve the payment for Mulcaire’s company ‘Global Intelligence Services’.

Kuttner was himself acquitted of conspiracy to hack phones alongside Coulson in 2014, but then had a bid for his £135,000 trial costs to be reimbursed rejected after Judge Sir John Saunders declared he had brought suspicion on himself with his actions for the paper.

Citing two other top Murdoch employees who were also acquitted at a criminal trial, Sherborne went: “We have to show, for example, that not just the journalist but, for example, Rebekah Brooks [serving News UK CEO], Neil Wallis [former NotW Deputy Editor], Stuart Kuttner, the desk-heads and so on; their level of knowledge as well.

The true reason for the phone hacking was to sell newspapers… and he, and others at the newspaper, were prepared to use illegal means to do that

— Judge John Saunders sentencing Andy Coulson at the Old Bailey in 2014

 “And that’s why the manuscript notes, for example, on the Global Intelligence Services document I showed you… show this was for Andy Coulson, that Mr Kuttner who signs this off is being told it’s for Andy Coulson, and that it’s… Mr Kuttner [who] will have seen thousands of these invoices being paid to Glenn Mulcaire.”

Addressing the judge, Sherborne added: “There is no way around this. What I don’t want to happen, as your Lordship knows, is we get to trial and then it’s said: ‘oh, well, we had no idea this is what you were doing’.”

Coulson has not offered any witness statement in relation to the Rowling allegation, and his former employer NGN is making such extensive ‘non-admissions’ – essentially putting the Claimants to proof – in relation to alleged criminality, which include claims of high-level concealment and destruction of evidence at Rupert Murdoch’s corporation, that its unusual Defence strategy was previously criticised by Mr Justice Mann as “not worthy of the [legal] profession”.

Counsel: barrister David Sherborne is accusing Andy Coulson of ordering illegal snooping on JK Rowling in High Court litigation in which his client Prince Harry (r) is a Claimant (C) PA

Coulson’s continuing refusal to accept the crimes for which he was convicted directly contradicts the remarks of Mr Justice Saunders in sentencing him to 18 months’ prison in 2014.

The Judge sentenced Coulson on the basis of the large “quantity of phone hacking” he “was involved in”, adding: “The true reason for the phone hacking was to sell newspapers. In an increasingly competitive market, the editor wanted to make sure that it was his paper that got the stories which would create the biggest headlines and sell the most newspapers and he, and others at the newspaper, were prepared to use illegal means to do that.”

Nor is it the first time Coulson has been implicated in allegations of criminal behaviour in written evidence that was never presented to jurors, but emerged only later during civil phone-hacking proceedings.

In May 2018, Mr Justice Mann heard how Coulson was present with Kuttner when Neil Wallis allegedly told the News of the World’s former Chief Reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, to destroy a computer and laptop in 2004, which would allegedly have connected the paper to the hacking of former British Home Secretary David Blunkett.

Evidential: The contemporaneous note that allegedly records former News of the World Deputy Editor Neil Wallis (r) instructing former Chief Reporter Neville Thurlbeck to destroy computer evidence linking the paper to the hacking of the phone of former UK Home Secretary David Blunkett. The note did not form part of the Crown’s case in 2015 when Wallis was cleared on phone hacking charges after a four-day deliberation by the jury. Byline Investigates also reported in January how The Sunday People newspaper, while Wallis was its Editor in 2002, targeted the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler (c) PA

The serious claims were recorded in a contemporaneous evidential note written by the News of the World’s former Deputy Editor Jane Johnson when Thurlbeck – himself later convicted of phone hacking – allegedly admitted his alleged activities to Coulson’s successor as editor, Colin Myler, in 2009.

At the time, Mr Sherborne told the court: “Despite the obvious illegality to be said of the activity, he (Thurlbeck) was told, we say, in the meeting with Mr Coulson, Wallis and Mr Kuttner to destroy his computers and thereby remove any incriminating evidence. We specifically allege the involvement of Mr Wallis in that.”

Targeted: Milly Dowler and David Blunkett (c) PA/ Wikipedia

Press reform group Hacked Off criticised the Sunday Times for failing to hold Coulson properly to account and the Conservative Government’s unilateral decision to cancel the second part of the Leveson Inquiry into Press misconduct, which would have examined evidence to have emerged at, and since, Coulson’s Old Bailey trial. 

Reputation management: (l) The News Building HQ of Rupert Murdoch’s (lower centre) Times & Sunday Times, (r) Andy Coulson’s interview with Chief Interviewer Decca Aitkenhead, in which he denied criminality and discussed his other former boss, David Cameron (top centre) , who publicly apologised in 2015 for hiring Coulson (c) glassdoor.co.uk/ Wikipedia/ Times Newspapers/ Creative Commons

A spokesperson said: “The Sunday Times has devoted many column inches to a profile of a convicted criminal who refuses to admit his guilt. 

“Mr Andy Coulson was the editor of a Murdoch newspaper which engaged in widespread criminal wrongdoing to which he was party. 

“We do not know the full extent of that wrongdoing because the Government – backed by the Murdoch newspapers – has refused to begin Leveson Part 2. 

“Rather than giving space to Mr Coulson’s denials of wrongdoing, The Times and other Murdoch outlets should join an independent regulator and support the immediate commencement of Leveson Part Two, to ensure that the illegal practices that Mr Coulson was convicted for are not repeated.

“When convicted criminals claim that they are innocent they are usually roundly condemned by the British press.

“But there is, apparently, one exception to this strict position of principle: when the criminal is a newspaper editor.”

* The phone hacking case, which includes allegations of high-level cover up and destruction of evidence at Rupert Murdoch’s corporation, is heading for a full trial of the facts at a date to be set in around 12 months. Byline Investigates will be there to report