‘Good investigative journalism takes courage’: Andy Coulson sent to prison

Andy Coulson and his fellow defendants were fiercely criticised by a judge today, as the phone-hacking trial ended with prison sentences.

Coulson was sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiracy to hack phones. He could be out in half that time, just in time for the general election.

However, he still faces retrial on buying royal telephone directories from police officers, after the jury failed to find a verdict.

Former news editor Greg Miskiw and former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck were given six month sentences.

Glenn Mulcaire, a former private investigator tasked with hacking, received a four month suspended sentence and 200 hours community work. He was described as "truly the lucky one".

Their sentences were reduced by a third for pleading guilty.

Coulson, 46, who pleaded not guilty, did not enjoy that reduction. He was also given a stiffer sentence – at the upper end of the options available to Mr Justice Saunders – because he was in charge of the News of the World at the time.

Speaking of Coulson's "prime responsibility", Mr Justice Saunders said there was "ample evidence [phone-hacking] increased enormously under his time as editor" and that "they used it to maintain their competitive edge".

He added: "He and others at the newspaper were prepared to use illegal means to increase market share."

On the coverage of Milly Dowler specifically, he said: "Their true motivation was not to act in the best interest of the child but to sell newspapers.

"They all knew it was contrary to PCC [Press Complaints Commission] code, and that it was morally wrong."

He insisted that phone-hacking was not just a crime which affected the rich and celebrities, but that ordinary people had also had their privacy violated.

"Laura Rooney's phone was hacked just because she shared the name of a famous footballer," he said.

Mr Justice Saunders spoke of the irony of journalists who forced others to tell the truth failing to "shine a light into their own profession".

Exposing what was going on would have taken courage, he added, "but good investigative journalism takes courage".

Five defendants on trial, including Rebekah Brooks, were cleared of all charges.

The case has caused damage to David Cameron’s reputation which he tried to draw a line under by making a full and immediate apology following the guilty verdict.

But even that intervention turned out to be unwise, after the judge launched a blistering attack on the prime minister for potentially affecting the verdict of the jury while it was still considering the royal directory verdict.

Cameron hired Coulson as director of communication for the Tories in 2007, just six months after he stepped down from News of the World and when there was already some controversy about phone-hacking in the pages of the Guardian.

He appointed him director of communications in Downing Street in 2010, at which point Labour says he underwent more modest vetting procedures than his predecessors.

The prime minister said the vetting procedure was the decision of the civil service.

"It's right that justice should be done and no-one is above the law, as I’ve always said," Cameron said in response to the sentences.

Shadow minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Dugher said: "This a damning verdict for David Cameron as well as Andy Coulson.

"David Cameron brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street. He was warned, ignored mounting evidence and refused to act. Now, not only is trust in the prime minister's judgement deeply damaged, his government is tainted.

"This did not happen by chance but by choice. Repeatedly, David Cameron put his relationship with Rupert Murdoch ahead of doing the right thing."