British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former spokesman was charged with perjury on Wednesday, after denying in court any knowledge of widespread phone hacking by reporters at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.
The charges against Andy Coulson, a former editor of the tabloid weekly, damages Mr. Cameron because it calls into question his judgment in employing a man so closely linked to the paper which was under suspicion of obtaining stories by illegal means.
Scottish police detained Mr. Coulson at his home in London early on Wednesday and drove him to Glasgow for hours of questioning before charging him.
Prosecutors said his arrest followed his appearance before the High Court in Glasgow in 2010 over a News of the World story published when he was editor.
Mr. Coulson, Mr. Cameron’s communications director from 2007 to January, 2011, told the court he had no knowledge of illegal activities by reporters while he was the paper’s editor. He was arrested last July by police investigating phone hacking and bribery at the News of the World.
Perjury can in theory result in a life sentence, but sentences of a couple of years are more typical, a spokesman for the Scottish government justice department said.
“This simply reinforces the questions that are hanging over the prime minister about his judgment in appointing Andy Coulson in the first place,” said Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at City University in London.
Mr. Coulson is the second ex-editor of the News of the World to be charged with a crime this month, embarrassing Mr. Cameron. Rebekah Brooks, a personal friend of the Prime Minister who became a senior Murdoch executive, was charged on May 15 with interfering with the police investigation into the hacking scandal.
The charges hand valuable political ammunition to Mr. Cameron’s opponents, at a time when the close ties between leaders of the current and last governments and Mr. Murdoch’s lieutenants are being exposed at an inquiry into collusion between the press, politicians and the police.
Mr. Coulson resigned as News of the World editor when his royal correspondent and a private investigator were jailed for hacking into phones in 2007. He denied any knowledge of the practice but said he took ultimate responsibility for the crime. Months later, he went to work for Mr. Cameron, first in opposition and then in government.
But when police reopened the probe into phone hacking, he was forced to resign as it became clear that the practice had been widespread at the paper under his leadership, although he maintained he knew nothing about such activities.
Mr. Coulson was called to the Scottish court in 2010 to answer questions about a front-page News of the World story about a Scottish socialist politician, Tommy Sheridan, whom the paper accused of visiting a swingers’ club.
“I don’t accept there was a culture of phone hacking at the News of the World,” Mr. Coulson told the court when questioned about the story.