Andy Coulson sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for involvement in phone hacking

Photo from the Guardian

Photo from the Guardian

Introduction

On 4 July 2014, Andy Coulson was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for conspiracy to hack phones.

Four others who had pleaded guilty received 1/3 credit and were sentenced as follows:

Neville Thurlbeck – 6 months

James Weatherup – 4 months suspended for 12 months. 200 hrs unpaid work

Greg Miskiw – 6 months

Glenn Mulcaire – 6 months suspended (reportedly due to the failure to charge him properly in 2006 when the police had sufficient evidence).

History

The trial of Rebeka Brooks, Andy Coulson and others began at the Central Criminal Court on 28th October 2013.  On 11th June 2014 the jury retired to consider their verdict.

Verdicts were returned on 24th June 2014. The headline news was the conviction of Andy Coulson on one count, but the acquittal of most other defendants.

On 25th June, the jury were discharged from giving a verdict on Mr Coulson and Clive Goodman on further counts and the CPS subsequently announced they would be pursuing a retrial.

You can read our coverage of the case here.

What was the case about?

Phone hacking and the behaviour of the New of the World.  In particular, it was alleged that employees working at the News of the World hacked the phones of a number of individuals in an effort to obtain information about celebrities for publication in the newspaper.  This was a direct invasion of those individual’s right to privacy.  Many of the victims of hacking are celebrities.  Some were members of the public misfortunate enough to hold the same surname as a celebrity.

It was agreed by both the prosecution and the defence that phone hacking went on at the NoTW, the issues for trial are how much, when, and who knew about it.

There were also allegations that the newspaper was involved in paying various officials (primarily police officers for information and destroying evidence to cover their tracks.

Andy Coulson

Andy Coulson – now aged 46, Coulson was deputy editor of the NoTW under Brooks’ role as editor.  Later he became editor.  He resigned to work for the Conservative Party, where he became the Prime Minister’s Director of Communication.

The indictment

Count 1:

Conspiracy to intercept communications

Details : ANDREW COULSON between 3 October 2000 and 9 August 2006 conspired … and with Glenn Mulcaire, Clive Goodman, Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup and persons unknown, to intercept, without lawful authority, communications in the course of their transmission by means of a public telecommunications system, namely mobile phone voicemail messages.

Verdict: Andy Coulson – Guilty

The offence

The offence is one of conspiracy under the Criminal Law Act 1977 s 1, which creates an offence of agreeing with another or others that a course of conduct shall be pursued which if carried out will result in the commission of an offence.

In this instance the offence is ‘unlawful interception’.

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 section 1

Unlawful interception

(1) It shall be an offence for a person intentionally and without lawful authority to intercept, at
any place in the United Kingdom, any communication in the course of its transmission by means
of—

(a)  a public postal service; or

(b)  a public telecommunication system.

(2)  It shall be an offence for a person—

(a)  intentionally and without lawful authority, and

(b)  otherwise than in circumstances in which his conduct is excluded by subsection (6)

from criminal liability under this subsection, to intercept, at any place in the United Kingdom, any communication in the course of its transmission by means of a private telecommunication system.

Maximum sentence

Under section 3(3) of the Criminal Law Act 1977, the person convicted of conspiracy shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding the maximum term provided for the offence they have conspired to commit. (There are a few exceptions but they do not apply here.)

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 section 1

(7)A person who is guilty of an offence under subsection (1) or (2) shall be liable—

(a)on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine, or to both;

(b)on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum.

As Coulson’s conviction was on indictment, the maximum sentence is 2 years’ imprisonment.

Mitigation

The following is taken from the Guardian’s report of the hearing on 1 July 2014.

Timothy Langdale QC said that the maximum sentence should be reserved for cases of the utmost gravity and therefore the sentence should not be 2 years.

Langdale said that “Such a penalty would be unfair on Coulson who did not “knowingly flout the criminal law” and was hitherto of good character…” It was also said that the newspaper’s legal department did not tell Coulson that hacking was illegal.

It was also said that Coulson had already lost two careers – one as a journalist and the second in political life – and this had taken a toll on his life, leaving him unable to get “any work of any substance”.

Spectator editor and political columnist Matthew d’Ancona appeared as a character witness for Coulson, saying that he had restored “public values” to the office of government communications director which had been tarnished by years of the “culture of spin” by two previous incumbents.

Langdale added: “Whatever its failings, the News of the World did have a genuine social and public impact, quite aside from what might be known as the kiss-and-tell journalism and ‘tarts and vicars’ journalism,”

Finally, he said “No one at the News of the World or the newspaper at large in 2000 to 2006 realised that the interception of voicemails was illegal in the sense of a criminal offence,” and that Coulson quite clearly knew hacking was a breach of the Press Complaints Commission code and there might be privacy issues, but never knew it was a crime.

Cases

As this was a rather unique set of circumstances, past case law is of little assistance. However, some guidance can perhaps be obtained from R v Stanford 2006 EWCA Crim 258 (a case about email hacking) in which the Lord Chief Justice said ‘The material factors for a section 1 offence are the nature of the material obtained and the object of obtaining it.’.

It will also be remembered that Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire received 4 months and 6 months respectively after pleading guilty to a conspiracy to commit RIPA 2000 s 1 (phone hacking) in relation to 609 messages on royal aides’ phones occurring over a period of 9 months.

Sentencing remarks

The Judge said Coulson took an active role and must take a large share of the blame and that Coulson wanted stories and “there was little care how he got them, there was little concern for personal privacy”.

The sentencing remarks are available here.

Release

Coulson is likely to be released on a tag (Home Detention Curfew) well before the half way point of his sentence. The way to calculate HDC eligibility in this case is to work out the requisite custodial term (which is half of the imprisonment). The subtract 135 days. So for Coulson, 18 months / 2 = 9 months, subtract 135 days = approximately 4.5 months before he is eligible for release on a tag.

Will there be an appeal?

Possibly but it would be unlikely to succeed. We’ll be able to say more once we have digested the sentencing remarks.

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