Judge tells David Cameron's disgraced former spin doctor his achievements as News of the World editor 'count for nothing'
|Andy Coulson is to spend the weekend at HMP Belmarsh before he|
is likely to be moved to an open prison. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
David Cameron's disgraced former spin doctor Andy Coulson is spending the weekend at Belmarsh prison after being jailed for 18 months for plotting to hack phones while in charge of the News of the World.
His reputation in tatters, Coulson was spared the maximum tariff of two years, but the judge told him his achievements as editor of Britain's largest selling newspaper now "count for nothing".
Mr Justice Saunders said Coulson had presided over an unedifying period at the News of the World between 2003 and 2007 when staff routinely trampled on rights to privacy. Not only did journalists hack phones, they deceived phone companies, rifled through bins and spied on people, all in a cynical attempt to increase sales.
Saunders said the 46-year-old "has to take the major share of the blame" for the hacking that took place on his watch. "He knew about it. He encouraged it when he should have stopped it," the judge said.
Coulson has said he did not know phone hacking was illegal but the judge said this was no defence in the eyes of the law and the former editor knew it was "morally wrong".
Saunders highlighted the hacking of the phone of Milly Dowler, rejecting arguments that the paper was merely trying to assist police in the hunt for the 13-year-old missing schoolgirl, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002.
He said Coulson's co-defendant Neville Thurlbeck, a newsdesk executive who was also sentenced on Friday, had dispatched a team of reporters to the Midlands to try to find her after a voice message led the paper to believe she had run away from home.
It was Thurlbeck who ordered the investigation into Milly that led to private investigator Glenn Mulcaire hacking her phone, but the paper failed to tell police for 24 hours it had a lead that she may have been alive. Saunders said this was "unforgivable" and could only have happened with Coulson's knowledge.
He said the true motive of the paper was not to help police but to "get credit for finding her and thereby sell the maximum number of newspapers".
Coulson was convicted last week after an eight-month trial triggered by the scandal that led Rupert Murdoch to shut down the News of the World in July 2011. Another former editor, Rebekah Brooks, and four others were acquitted.
In handing down the prison sentence, Saunders noted that Coulson and three former colleagues also sentenced for their part in the hacking conspiracy were "distinguished journalists who had no need to behave as they did to be successful". He said they had "all achieved a great deal without resorting to the unlawful invasion of other people's privacy. Those achievements will now count for nothing".
Thurlbeck and his predecessor on the newsdesk Greg Miskiw pleaded guilty to their part in the phone hacking plot before the trial and were sentenced on Friday to six months in jail. They will serve 37 days after getting a discount of 53 days on curfew last summer.
A third former newsdesk executive, James Weatherup, got four months suspended while Mulcaire, who pleaded guilty to three other counts of hacking was told he was "truly the lucky one" and given a six-month suspended sentence.
Cameron, who employed Coulson as his director of communications after he left the newspaper, said the jail sentence showed "no one is above the law".
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said his thoughts were with the victims of phone hacking, who included royals, politicians, celebrities, members of the public and victims of crime.
"I think it's right that justice has been done. I think, once again, it throws up very serious questions about David Cameron's judgment in bringing a criminal into the heart of Downing Street despite repeated warnings. This is a verdict on Andy Coulson's criminal behaviour but it is also a verdict on David Cameron's judgment."
Coulson received a discount on his sentence of six months for his previous good character. He will serve half his sentence and be released under licence in March. It is likely, however, that he will be released earlier as a non-violent offender.
He will be processed at HMP Belmarsh and is likely to be sent to an open prison early next week, possibly on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.
The judge said there was "insufficient evidence" to conclude Coulson started phone hacking at the News of the World but there was "ample evidence that it increased enormously while he was editor", taking in politicians such as David Blunkett, royals including Prince William and Harry and crime victims such as Milly.
"The true reason for the phone hacking was to sell newspapers," said Saunders who noted that Coulson was undoubtedly under pressure to maintain or increase market share.
The judge described him as ambitious and said "it was important for him to succeed" as a young editor, but that he had passed down that pressure to others fostering competition between newspaper departments. The culture he created "demonstrates that rights to individual privacy counted for little".
Dressed in a grey suit and white shirt, as he frequently was during the trial, Coulson stood in the dock emotionless as Saunders handed down the sentence. His wife, Eloise, who loyally appeared in the public gallery during the trial despite revelations over his affair with Brooks, was not present.
All five defendants face financial ruin in addition to prison time after the crown notified them it would be seeking to recoup £750,000 in costs.