Phone hacking: Questions over Coulson’s Murdoch pay-off won’t go away

For Andy Coulson, a man more used to putting others in the media spotlight, his sustained presence in the press must be uncomfortable, writes Sara Ibrahim.

For Andy Coulson, a man more used to putting others in the media spotlight, his sustained presence in the press must be uncomfortable. This week further details emerged of his continued links to News International in the form of severance pay, health benefits and access to a company car after he started working for Conservative Central Office.

Supporters of Coulson have quickly rallied to his defence and say that these severance payments are ordinary business practice that the Labour Party is unfairly trying to make mileage out of. Are they right?

Coulson left his News of the World role on January 26th 2007 over phone hacking which several weeks later saw Clive Goodman, the paper’s Royal Correspondent, receive a sentence of four months’ imprisonment.

Whilst Coulson himself wasn’t publicly stated to be involved with the affair (at this stage) his exit was negotiated from NotW by a compromise agreement.

Compromise agreements are standard fare in all types of employment dispute – so far so normal. The rub comes with the fact Coulson received payments from News International until the end of 2007, during his time as Director of Communications for the Conservatives. The Conservative blogosphere says this is immaterial. They are wrong.

Compromise agreements are used by former employers to tie their old employees into behaving in a certain way.

No matter how many clauses an agreement has there is one underlying theme: if you breach the fundamental terms then your former bosses can sue for their money back. No matter how generous the Conservative Party’s remuneration package for Coulson (estimated at £275,000), this would have played on his mind.

Does this make him a kind of ‘double agent’ as John Prescott has suggested? That is perhaps putting it too high but he did have an ongoing relationship with News International throughout 2007.

The most frightening thing is that the Conservative Party thinks it is immaterial.

This attitude is of particular concern now it has emerged that News International has been paying the legal fees of Andy Coulson following his arrest. There has been no scrimping for Coulson who has been using the legal services of a partner at DLA Piper who charges £400 an hour, according to the Financial Times (£).

News International’s willingness to pick up the tab is revealing. It certainly detracts from their contentions that those involved in phone hacking were rogue agents. The message paying for Coulson’s legal fees gives out is that ‘we are all in this together’. Dropping Coulson now will be too little too late.

With very little information forthcoming all we are left with are questions:

• Why didn’t Cameron or the Conservative Party ask about continuing links with News International?

• Why was Coulson’s severance package so supportive despite the circumstances of his resignation?

• Why was nothing declared to the parliamentary authorities?

• On what basis is News International providing legal support for Coulson?

There are urgent questions that need to be answered by Coulson, by Mr Cameron and by the Conservative Party itself. A failure to answer them looks like contempt for open and transparent government.

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