Former News of the World Editor: Sports Section Was 'Crucial' for Rupert Murdoch (Updated)
LONDON -- News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch only called from time to time, mostly on Saturday night, and he mostly took interest in the sports section of the shuttered News of the World tabloid that is at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal, its former editor said here Thursday.
Andy Coulson, who later also worked for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and was arrested for questioning about phone hacking and a scandal involving payments to public officials, appeared in front of the Leveson Inquiry.
The government-funded inquiry into media ethics and the relationship between media, politics, police and the public recently also questioned Murdoch and his son James Murdoch, who is deputy COO of News Corp. On Friday, longtime Murdoch associate Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO of U.K. newspaper unit News International, is set to appear.
In Thursday's appearance, Coulson was not asked about the issues of phone hacking or corruption, given ongoing investigations of which he is a subject.
His comments came as News Corp.'s stock rose more than 5 percent in early U.S. trading to hit a 52-week high of $20.45, following stronger-than-expected quarterly results reported late Wednesday.
Overall, Coulson, dressed in a dark suit and tie and sometimes only giving brief answers, described his interaction with Murdoch as "irregular."
But when they talked, Murdoch often called on Saturday nights, he said. And he mostly wanted to discuss the sports section, which Coulson said was "crucial" to Murdoch, and general politics. However, he said he didn't remember conversations with Murdoch, whom he described as "supportive" of his work, about specific stories in the paper.
Asked in front of the Leveson Inquiry if as the NOTW editor he tried to lead or follow his readers, Coulson said editors can't lead consumers to anything except buying a paper. He implied that he was a conservative editor leading a paper that supported, at least at that time, the Labour Party.
Coulson also described himself as a close friend of Brooks and said they spoke "regularly" when he worked in Cameron's office, adding that they haven't spoken for some time "for obvious reasons." When he joined the prime minister, Brooks seemed pleased for him, but he said he doesn't know if she ever lobbied behind the scenes in favor of his getting the job.
Coulson also faced questions about the deal he got when he left News Corp., which included company stock. He said he believes he did not own any more stock when he began working for Cameron.
Coulson told the Leveson Inquiry he held stocks in News Corporation worth £40,000 ($64,500) while working as the prime minister's press chief.
The former News of the World editor resigned from his Downing Street role in January 2011 amid the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.
He told Leveson he did not consider it to represent any kind of conflict of interest.
But he added "in retrospect I wish I had paid more attention to it".
Coulson said: "I was never asked about any share or stock holdings and because I knew that I wasn't involved in any commercial issues, including the BSkyB bid, it never occurred to me that there could be a conflict of interest."
As Coulson's day on the stand came to a close he was asked if he wanted to make any closing remarks of his own.
He took the opportunity to make what he described as a small point "on the theory that there was some kind of deal between News Corp or News International and the Conservative party over BSkyB".
The former NOTW editor said: "If there was a deal and there was a conspiracy … why was Vince Cable given the job? It is in the prime minister's gift to decide who held which brief in his cabinet. So if there was this conspiracy running that David Cameron was going to gift [the BSkyB deal to News Corp] then why would he give it to – and I will choose my words very carefully – a combative member of the cabinet?"
Jay quickly pointed out that Cable was made business secretary in May 2010, weeks before the bid by News Corp. for the stake was announced in June 2010.
Coulson noted the timing, adding: "The conspiracy suggests this was a deal that was done some time before."
Judge Leveson earlier in the day also addressed a recent U.K. parliamentary committee report that had questioned Rupert Murdoch's fitness to lead a major company. Leveson said he "won't be drawn into comments on anyone's fitness."