Independent on Sunday editor John Mullin issued a robust defence when he was summoned to appear at the Leveson Inquiry this afternoon to answer questions over a story claiming Andy Coulson owned shares in News Corp while at No 10.
Mullin admitted seeing a copy of Coulson’s witness statement last Thursday, which is due to be published by the inquiry this afternoon, but insisted no information from it was used in the story.
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Instead, he told the inquiry that the paper had already stood the story up with three different sources the night before.
Sunday’s story – headlined “Coulson owned News Corp shares while at No 10” – revealed that Coulson held shares in News Corp while he was still David Cameron’s head of communications at Downing Street, and that he advised on the decision to hand responsibility for the BSkyB bid to Jeremy Hunt in December 2010.
In Apri, Lord Justice Leveson issued an order banning witness statements being made public until they had been given in evidence at the inquiry.
Mullin told Leveson today that he was ‘fully aware’the order existed but considered publication to be in the public interest, arguing the inquiry should not stand in the way of “good, honest journalism”.
He refused to tell the inquiry how the paper obtained the statement but did confirm that it was not from a core participant or a member of the Leveson Inquiry team.
Asked if it came from anyone within the so-called ‘confidentiality circle”, he replied: ‘I’m not prepared to go any further than what I’ve said in the statement.”
He also refused to answer questions on how the statement was obtained but said no form of subterfuge was involved. He also confirmed that the paper was shown a copy of the statement but did not physically retain a copy.
When asked why he was prepared to read the statement knowing the restriction was in place, he responded: ‘I think it’s human nature that if you’re presented with something like that, you’re a journalist, that you would read it.
‘I think in retrospect it would have been much better all round had I not read that statement.’
‘It’s a very good story’
But he also said that the paper had three sources confirming the story and ‘had the story copper-bottomed on the Wednesday evening”, insisting: ‘We didn’t use the statement as a source.”
Leveson later suggested the story was run because Mullin felt the ‘scoop was just too irresistible”.
‘No, I don’t think so,’he replied. ‘I think if we’d been that excited about it we might have put in on the front page.
‘It’s a very good story and puts in the public mind the key question in the week that Mr Coulson is going to give evidence… who knew what, when?”
He added: ‘I made the decision ahead of pressing the button on publication on Saturday, and I made that decision with the facts and calculations that I made at that time.
‘I think with hindsight, and of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, there certainly would have been scope for me to at least have sought some informal guidance from the inquiry
‘But I wouldn’t want that to be taken as an acceptance that the decision I made on Saturday was entirely incorrect.
‘I do apologise for the trouble this has caused the inquiry and I do apologise for the effort that you’ve had to go to today. It wasn’t our intention and we are motivated only by trying to get to the bottom of this issue, as is the inquiry.
Leveson told Mullin he was going to ‘think about you have said very, very carefully”.