|(Top) Andy Coulson at the Old Bailey and Rolf Harris at the Southwark Crown Court in London on Friday. (AFP, Reuters)
London, July 4: A disturbing portrait of Britain emerged today after two once highly regarded men were sent to prison — Andy Coulson for 18 months and Rolf Harris for five years and nine months.
The judges, Mr Justice Saunders, at the Old Bailey, in the case of Coulson, and Mr Justice Sweeney, dealing with Harris, at Southwark Crown Court, had to match their crimes to appropriate punishment.
But taken together, the context in which the two men were brought to trial provides a troubling picture of aspects of life in Britain. Coulson, 46 and married father of three, ran the News of the World, a big circulation Sunday tabloid newspaper, firstly as deputy editor and then as editor, and presided over phone hacking on an “industrial scale”.
He has seriously compromised the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who appointed him as chief press officer at 10, Downing Street, although there were repeated warnings at the time that the choice was an unwise one. Asked to comment on the sentence, Cameron, who was in Scotland, said: “Well, what it says is that it is right that justice should be done and no one is above the law, which is what I have always said.”
The Prime Minister has dumped his old friend and not spoken to Coulson, from Charing in Kent, since the trial started, which does not speak well of Cameron either.
The conviction of Harris also has to be seen in context. This is not an isolated case of a “dirty old man” prone to groping young girls in lifts. Dozens of show biz celebrities, now aged between 60 and 80, have been charged for “historic” sex abuse of young girls who were clearly captivated by the star appeal of anyone who appeared on television.
Harris, a much loved entertainer of Australian origin who is 84 and faces the prospect of not surviving his allotted time in prison, sexually abused young girls, again on an “industrial” scale by taking advantage of his star status.
He did not even spare his teenage daughter Bindi’s best friend. At one stage Harris, who can paint and sing, was so highly regarded that even the Queen sat for a portrait. It seems TV personalities felt they had a right to help themselves to young girls who chanced into their web.
Coulson’s excuse is that he worked in a very competitive field and wanted the most explosive exclusives every Sunday for his newspaper, which was owned by Rupert Murdoch. The News of the World, with a circulation once of over 5 million, was Murdoch’s cash cow but as embarrassment was heaped on embarrassment, the paper’s owner had no option but to engage in an act of filicide. He had to kill off his own much loved baby and destroy the careers of hundreds of journalists.
Some of Coulson’s staff were also sentenced today — news editor Greg Miskiw, 64, from Leeds, and chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, 52, of Esher, Surrey were each jailed for six months.
Another news editor James Weatherup, 58, of Brentwood in Essex, was jailed for four months, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to do 200 hours unpaid community work.
The paper paid a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, 43, of Sutton, south London, a staggering £500,000 to hack the phones of hundreds of celebrities, politicians and members of the royal household. But it was his interception of messages left on the mobile of a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, later confirmed as murdered, that brought the whole tabloid world crashing down.
Since Mulcaire had earlier served six months in prison after being convicted in a separate phone hacking trial, the judge called him “the lucky one” and let him with off six months imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, plus 200 hours unpaid community work.
At the News of the World, journalists spent much of their time trying to uncover who was sleeping with whom.
in fact, Coulson was sleeping with Rebekah Brooks, the woman whom he was to succeed as editor of the paper and who went on to become chief executive of News International Murdoch’s entire newspaper stable in Britain. She was cleared of all charges Last week at the end of a trial lasting 139 days and costing an estimated £60m.In passing sentence today on Coulson, Mr Justice Saunders made some telling observations: “Mr Coulson, on the jury’s verdict, has to take the major share of the blame for the phone hacking at the News of the World. On the jury’s verdict he knew about it and encouraged it when he should have stopped it.”
“The News of the World delayed telling the police the contents of the voicemail until they realised that they were not going to find Milly,” the judge continued.
“That was unforgiveable and could only, in my judgment, have happened with the knowledge of the person editing the paper that week, Andy Coulson.”
The judge spoke of the investigative reporters who were up before him: “There is a certain irony in seeing men who pride themselves on being distinguished investigative journalists, who have shed light in dark corners and forced others to reveal the truth, being unprepared to do the same for their own profession. I accept that that would require great courage but the best investigative journalists have never been short of courage.”
At the Harris trial, meanwhile, the performer was unmasked as a prolific paedophile with his conviction for 12 indecent assaults. The charges covering the period 1968-1986 related to four girls, one of whom had been seven at the time and had merely asked for his autograph when she was groped.
There was a “victim statement” from the girl who had been his daughter’s best friend but had been used as a “toy” from the age of 13: “The attacks that happened have made me feel dirty, grubby and disgusting. The whole sordid saga has traumatised me.”
Mr Justice Sweeney told Harris, a family man: “For well over 50 years you have been a popular entertainer and TV personality of international standing with a speciality in children’s entertainment. You are also an artist of renown. ... you were also a sex offender...There were a number of aggravating features. You took advantage of the trust placed in you because of your celebrity status to commit the offences. ... In every case the age gap between you and the victim was a very considerable one. You clearly got a thrill from committing the offences while others were present or nearby. Whilst others did not realise what you were doing their presence added to the ordeal of your victims.”
He stressed: “You have shown no remorse for your crimes at all. Your reputation lies in ruins, you have been stripped of your honours, but you have no one to blame but yourself.”