Coulson: merely a liar, not a perjurer.
The jury saw through it, as did everyone else. Coulson's peformance at the Old Bailey was not however his first instance of telling the most outrageous of lies while under oath. Called by Tommy Sheridan at the Scottish politician's own perjury trial, Coulson denied having any knowledge whatsoever of Glenn Mulcaire, the News of the World's private detective phone hacker-in-chief. At the time I asked if there had ever been an instance of someone facing a charge of perjury as a consequence of giving evidence at a perjury trial, and lo, so did it come to pass. The case was repeatedly delayed, first by all the investigations in England into phone hacking, then by the election, lest the potential conviction of the prime minister's former head of communications for perjury while still in his employ have any desperately unfair impact on the result, but did eventually begin three weeks ago.
Coulson's acquittal today, which is of a piece with the aforementioned acquittal of Rebekah Brooks and many of the Sun journalists on charges of misconduct in public office, is not that surprising given the Scottish definition of precisely what perjury is. What is surprising is that as with so many of these cases, the prosecution itself was unutterably lacking. The Crown had over four years to get its case against Coulson in order, or rather, potentially, to realise that it didn't have one despite the blatancy of Coulson's untruths. At every point Lord Burns, the presiding judge, appears to have given the Crown the benefit of the doubt: the case proceeded despite Coulson's defence lawyer, Murdo MacLeod QC advancing the exact same arguments that belatedly saw his client acquitted in closed court before the trial began. Burns let the prosecution make its case, then decided that it had indeed completely failed to prove that Coulson's evidence in Sheridan's perjury trial had been relevant to his conviction. In fact, it didn't really even begin to do so.
As Burns summed up, in Scotland at least, "not every lie amounts to perjury" (PDF) . Despite what some were quick to claim, Coulson was not cleared of lying under oath. He without a shadow of a doubt did lie under cross-examination from Tommy Sheridan. That Coulson was prepared to risk not just his own career but also that of the man he chose to serve by doing so is a measure of his hubris and eventual nemesis. His lies were not however integral to Sheridan being found guilty; despite Sheridan advancing the claim that he had been hacked by the News of the World, evidence given by a Metropolitan police officer contradicted the notion. Sheridan did indeed feature in one of Glenn Mulcaire's notebooks, filled with the phone numbers and PIN codes of so many other phone hacking victims, but no further evidence was discovered to prove Sheridan was among them. Sheridan in his summing up painted his calling of Coulson as potentially irrelevant, but justified it as necessary as part of "other issues that have to be considered, not for you, but other issues…about conduct in public life, about power about who can do things and who can break the law and get away with it". He also argued it was "a public service and a public duty to try and expose wrongdoing".
The Crown was rather in a bind. It could hardly call Sheridan to expand on precisely what his intentions were and why in fact his questioning and Coulson's answers were relevant to the conviction. As the Graun points out, it was the Crown's case in the original trial that any use of the dark arts against Sheridan, of which there hadn't been any anyway, was irrelevant. To then admit that, err, perhaps there had been would be a contradiction too far and provide further ammunition to the review of his conviction. Incompetence does still rear its head: Burns was not given the rulings made prior to and during the Sheridan trial over the admissibility of hacking evidence, which deemed it was relevant. And while Sheridan may well not have been hacked, his associate Joan McAlpine definitely was. There's also the question, as raised over the non-prosecution of Lord Janner, of whether it should have been left up to the jury to decide if they felt Coulson's evidence had been relevant.
Lord Burns' highlighting of the Scottish law on perjury does nonetheless all but suggest that north of the border the oath isn't to be taken literally. Apparently you only need tell the truth up to a point; juries can distinguish between evidence from a witness that is clearly fanciful while still accepting other things they say as fact, as Burns writes. It's quite true that if everyone who lied under oath was prosecuted the courts would do little else, and yet it seems perverse that a judge can accept that someone who was in such a position of authority and power as Coulson can treat the oath with contempt and walk free, claiming vindication no less.
What matters however is the law, and regardless of whether or not the case was pursued competently or with total dedication, with perjury being so narrowly defined it was always going to be difficult to achieve a conviction. The same could be said of many of the prosecutions of Sun journalists in England, which have in the main seen the journalists acquitted while their sources, disgracefully, have often been convicted and imprisoned. These prosecutions, which are all the more questionable after a Court of Appeal ruling that a judge had misdirected the jury in one trial, resulted from the handing over to the Met of a massive cache of internal documentation, as provided by News Corp's Management Standards Committee. If the purpose, as critics have long suspected, was to focus attention on the misdeeds of individual journalists rather than on those commissioning their stories and paying their wages, then it seems to have gone entirely according to plan.
Nor does the performance of the CPS inspire confidence should charges eventually be forthcoming over the phone hacking at the Mirror group of newspapers. Just as News International maintained its "one lone reporter" line until it could no longer do so, such was the weight of evidence, so too Trinity Mirror denied any wrongdoing until finally the logjam was broken by the case brought by a group of celebrities. Former chief executive Sly Bailey almost certainly lied to the Leveson inquiry, while current CEO Simon Fox, who previously took HMV to the brink of collapse, claimed once they were convinced hacking had taken place they acted. Mr Justice Mann in fact had to order the company to make clear exactly what it was it was admitting to last September, rather than just in the "general terms" it had. His ruling also made clear that he accepted the evidence of James Hipwell (one of those imprisoned following the City Slickers affair) on hacking at the Daily Mirror, and how it "implicates the newspaper at levels above the journalists investigating the stories". Let's hope Alison Saunders and friends have more success with Piers Morgan than her predecessor did with Rebekah Brooks, eh?