Sheridan trial: Andy Coulson takes the stand

Downing Street’s director of communications gave evidence at the perjury trial of former MSP Tommy Sheridan yesterday.

Andy Coulson, 42, was editor of the News of the World at the time of Sheridan’s successful defamation action against the newspaper in 2006.

The action followed the newspaper’s claims that the former Scottish Socialist Party MSP was an adulterer who visited swingers’ clubs.

Sheridan and his wife Gail, both 46, both deny lying under oath during the action, following which he was awarded £200,000.

Coulson denied that he “micro-managed” the Scottish edition of the newspaper, whose editor was Bob Bird.

However, he said he came to Scotland to view a video secretly filmed by George McNeilage which shows a man alleged to be Sheridan making admissions about his private life. He said he believes the man in the tape is Sheridan.

The former MSP, who is defending himself, asked whether he was one of the “Wapping two top men” regarding the purchase of the tape.

Coulson replied: “It came to Bob Bird first. He alerted me to its existence and I travelled to Glasgow. I viewed the tape and I suggested to Bob he should do all he could to verify the tape, though I believed it to be authentic on my first viewing and the tape was published.”

Sheridan asked whether he believed it was authentic and Coulson replied: “It was you.”

Asked whether he saw the defendant’s face, he replied: “I heard your voice.

“We’ve matched it against other recordings of your voice and it seemed pretty authentic to me.”

Coulson told the court that he stepped down as editor of the News of the World after four years in 2007 after one of his reporters, Clive Goodman, was convicted of phone hacking along with private investigator Glen Mulcaire, and he felt he should take ultimate responsibility.

He denied there was a culture of such practices at the newspaper.

He told the court: “I don’t accept there was a culture of phone hacking at the News of the World.”

The communications director said he had never heard of Glen Mulcaire until the Clive Goodman affair started.

Coulson also denied that his reporters practised the so-called “dark arts”, which he said have been described as meaning illegal work.

He said: “As far as my reporters were concerned they were to work within the law and to work within the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) code.”

Sheridan also asked Mr Coulson whether he operated an “atmosphere of fear” in which staff were under pressure to produce stories, to which he replied: “Certainly not.”

Sheridan denies making false statements as a witness in the defamation action on July 21 2006.

His wife denies committing the same crime on July 31 2006 after being sworn in as a witness at the civil jury trial.

Earlier today the court heard from Patricia Smith, 64, a former SSP colleague of Sheridan.

She told the jury that he denied that he had visited a sex club when he attended an emergency meeting of the party’s executive committee on November 9 2004.

Another ex-SSP colleague, Rosemary Byrne, gave the same evidence on Wednesday.

Many crown witnesses have previously testified that Sheridan did admit visiting the club at the meeting.

Asked what Sheridan said at the gathering, she replied: “You seemed to be answering a question about something that had appeared in the paper, it was about an MSP who had attended a sex club.

“I’d never read the article but had heard about it and you were carefully explaining that it was not you and all the reasons it could not be you.”

She added: “You were surprised that people thought it could be you, it didn’t sound like you but the journalist who had written up this or leaked it was Anvar Khan, she was somebody you were familiar with, she had visited you when you had been in prison and she had a brief relationship with you.

“You thought this was the only reason that had linked your name to this article in the paper.”

Cross-examining Ms Smith, Alex Prentice QC took her through a draft minute he said appeared to be of the November 9 meeting but Ms Smith said her recollection did not tally with some parts of it.

Prentice said: “The truth is he did admit to having been at the club and visiting the club on two occasions.”

She said: “No.”

He went on: “Tommy said he was not prepared to resign as convener unless proof was proved to exist.”

Smith answered: “No, he had denied it, there could be no proof.”

Another witness Gordon Morgan, 60, a founder member of the party, told the court today that from 2003 there was a “division” between the elected MSPs, and that the party was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time.

Sheridan asked Mr Morgan to describe the nature of the SSP during this period.

He replied: “Factioned. Groupings had been established and actions were being taken by groups of people together, not necessarily in the interests of the party. It was very clear that there had been a division between the MSPs elected.

“Frances Curran, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie were acting together, socialising together, acting as a sub-group together and being derogatory towards both Tommy Sheridan and Rosemary Byrne.”

He said financial pressure intensified the divisions as there was a threat that people may lose their jobs.

Cross-examining, Prentice asked Morgan whether there was a united front in the party and was told: “There was generally in a political sense.”

The trial before Lord Bracadale continues.

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