Andy Coulson, a former editor of News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-press chief, asked an appeals court to make the company pay his legal fees in a criminal phone-hacking case.
Coulson’s lawyers told the Court of Appeal in London today that his 2007 termination contract with News Corp. requires the company to pay legal fees in relation to his duties as editor. Coulson was charged in July with conspiring between 2000 and 2006 to intercept the mobile-phone messages of more than 600 people, including U.S. actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The connection between the charges and Coulson’s job at the tabloid are “a no-brainer,” his lawyer, Thomas Linden, said. “Coulson is charged with five counts of conspiracy with others at the News of the World, including his boss,” Rebekah Brooks, who stepped down as chief executive officer of News Corp.’s U.K. unit two days before her arrest last year.
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, a friend of Brooks, closed the News of the World in July 2011 to help quell public anger after it emerged that journalists accessed messages on a murdered schoolgirl’s mobile phone nearly a decade earlier. The investigation spawned parallel probes of computer hacking and bribery and led to the arrests of more than 80 people, including the unit’s former head of security and its top lawyer.
Coulson, 44, and Brooks are among eight people accused of conspiring with Glenn Mulcaire, the company’s former private investigator, to hack phones for news stories. Another group, including Brooks’s husband, Charlie Brooks, was charged with conspiring to cover up the conspiracy by hiding evidence. They are due to stand trial together in September 2013.
Coulson, who denies the charges, argues his former employer is wrongfully assuming he’s guilty by refusing to pay legal fees for someone it says broke the law. He also cited local press reports saying the company is paying Brooks’s expenses. The appeals judges said they would assume the claim about Brooks was true if News Corp. didn’t challenge it. They didn’t.
“Mr. Coulson does dispute the allegations and he’s entitled to be presumed innocent,” Linden said.
A lower court ruled in December 2011, before Coulson was charged, that News Corp.’s News International unit isn’t required to pay his legal fees because the termination contract didn’t apply to such a hacking conspiracy. Coulson argued the details of the charges help prove the alleged crime relates directly to his previous post at the weekly tabloid.
His contract “covers doing his job as editor and it is not part of his job to hack phones,” said Christopher Jeans, the lawyer for London-based News International, adding if any fees are paid, it should come after he’s proved innocent.
Coulson resigned from News International in 2007, after Mulcaire and the tabloid’s Royal Family reporter Clive Goodman were jailed for phone hacking. He later served as Cameron’s press chief until January 2011, when he was implicated in a renewed phone-hacking probe that expanded the list of suspects.
News Corp., based in New York, faces its own legal troubles in Britain over phone hacking, including more than 150 civil lawsuits by victims scheduled for a group trial in June. The company has spent more than $315 million on settlements, legal costs and closing the tabloid.