David Cameron revealed in parliament that warnings about his former communications chief’s fitness for a job in government, made to one of his most senior aides, were not relayed to him.
Further details also emerged that suggest his team chose not to act on information about a corrupt private detective employed under Andy Coulson’s editorship of the News of the World.
The prime minister admitted that despite the information being passed from one of his closest aides, Steve Hilton, to his chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, Llewellyn took the judgment that the information was already substantially contained in news reports in the public domain.
However, in a fresh statement, the Guardian reveals that Llewellyn was informed by the paper on a second occasion about Coulson’s connections to Jonathan Rees, a private detective then facing charges for conspiracy to murder, and previously jailed for conspiracy to plant cocaine on an innocent woman.
In addition to the passing of information from Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz to Steve Hilton and on to Ed Llewellyn, Katz met with Llewellyn at the Conservative party conference on 4 October 2010 where they had a conversation about Coulson’s involvement in hacking. A Guardian statement reads: “In particular, they discussed the Rees case.”
Evidence of a second direct warning puts pressure on the government’s assertion it acted properly on the information it had.
At the despatch box on Wednesday, Cameron was pressed on the issue by the leader of the opposition and for the first time admitted that despite aides being informed, he remained unaware of the Guardian’s concerns.
Cameron said: “This information was not passed on to me. But let me clear, this was not some secret stash of information – almost all of it was published in the Guardian in February 2010 at the same time my office was approached.
“It contained no allegations directly linking Andy Coulson to illegal behaviour, it didn’t shed any further light on the issue of phone hacking, so it wasn’t drawn to my attention by my office.”
The prime minister also said that he had two further meetings with Rusbridger, in March 2010 and another earlier this year, at which Rusbridger had not raised the issue of Coulson.
Rusbridger said: “The prime minister’s account of why he failed to act on the information we passed his office in February 2010 is highly misleading. Any ordinary person hearing of the unpublishable facts about a convicted News of the World private investigator facing conspiracy to murder charges would have recognised the need to investigate the claims.”
In briefings after Cameron’s statement it was also admitted that the prime minister had not read these newspaper reports.
The Guardian’s statement reads: “Before the last election the Guardian was unable for legal reasons to report the full details about a private investigator, on remand for murder, used by the News of the World under Andy Coulson’s editorship.
“The investigator – Jonathan Rees – had served a seven-year sentence for perverting the course of justice before being rehired by the News of the World when Coulson was editor in 2005.
“In 2008 he had been charged with conspiracy to murder Daniel Morgan, his former business partner, who was found in a pub car park with an axe in his head in 1987.”
In February 2010, as speculation mounted that Cameron would transfer Coulson, then director of communications for the Conservative party, into Downing Street, the Guardian’s Nick Davies emailed Coulson for comment on a planned article about his paper’s hiring of Rees. Davies detailed Rees’ criminal exploits and referred Coulson back to Guardian articles run in 2002 exposing Rees’ involvement with corrupt police – information in the public domain before he was hired again by Coulson.
Because of the contempt of court rules, the Guardian could not name Rees nor any details of his illegal activities involving News of the World.
Katz contacted Hilton to relay those unreportable details, including that Rees had been hired by Coulson after his sentence for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by planting cocaine on an innocent woman, and that he was on remand for conspiracy in an axe murder.
In the Commons, the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, asked: “The information showed that while he was editing the News of the World Andy Coulson had hired Jonathan Rees, a man jailed for seven years for a criminal conspiracy and who made payments to police on behalf of the News of the World. Can you tell us what happened to that significant information that was given to your chief of staff?”
Cameron said: “All these questions relate to the fact that I hired a tabloid editor. I did so on the basis of assurances that he gave me that he did not know about the phone hacking, that he was not involved in criminality.
“He gave those self-same assurances to the police, to a select committee and under oath to a court of law. If it turns out he lied, it won’t just be that he shouldn’t have been in government, it will be that he should be prosecuted. But I do believe we must stick to the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty.”
In the house on Wednesday, Cameron said he had since met Rusbridger who had not raised the issue with him. In its statement, the Guardian writes: “Cameron says the Guardian’s editor did not raise the matter at two meetings on 30 March 2010 and 3 March 2011. The first meeting – to discuss the election – was with four Guardian executives and was after the warning had gone via Hilton. The second was after Coulson had left Downing Street and is thus irrelevant”.
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