Chancellor George Osborne has defended his party’s decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as the Conservatives’ communications chief.
In a seemingly well-rehearsed appearance before the Leveson Inquiry afternoon, Osborne stressed that it was Coulson’s “enormous amount of professional experience” editing a major national newspaper that made him a strong candidate for the job of communications director for the Conservative Party in July 2007.
Coulson told the Inquiry last month that he was personally approached by Osborne just months after his resignation following the jailing of former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire on phone hacking offences.
Osborne conceded it was “controversial” to hire Coulson given the nature of his resignation, but downplayed the former editor’s links to News International. “What we were interested in hiring is someone who was going to do the job going forward. We thought he had the experience and the personality to do that,” Osborne said.
He added that he sought assurances from Coulson on phone hacking: “I asked him [Coulson] in a general sense (…) whether there was more in the phone hacking story that was going to come out that we needed to know about and he said ‘no’.”
Strenuously denying claims of a conspiracy between the Tory party and News Corp, the Chancellor referred to the media giant’s bid for the takeover of BSkyB as a “political inconvenience”, stressing he did not have “a strong view on the merits or demerits of the merger.”
“It was what it was, and was causing trouble with varous newspaper groups,” Osborne said, adding that he was also unaware of primer minister David Cameron or culture secretary Jeremy Hunt‘s views of the bid, which was eventually abandoned last summer in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
He said that the December 2010 decision to hand over responsibility for the bid to Hunt — following the revelation of business secretary Vince Cable being secretly recorded as having “declared war” on News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch — was a “good solution” to keep Cable in government while passing over the responsibility of media plurailty to the department of culture, media and sport (DCMS). He said the decision, suggested by Number 10 permanent secretary, Jeremy Heywood, was settled in under an hour.
“The media department was the obvious place to look [to] when it came to the reallocation of responibilities for media policy within government,” Osborne said.
“The principal concern was that this was not something that should lead to the resignation of Dr Cable,” Osborne added, noting it would take a “real fantasist to believe we had knowingly allowed Cable to be secretly recorded”.
The Inquiry continues tomorrow with evidence from former prime minister Sir John Major, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman.
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