Andy Coulson on regrets, resilience and recovery
September 18, 2020. Series 2. Episode 8
In this first episode of the second series, Andy puts himself on the other side of the microphone and talks to journalist and broadcaster Jane Moore about his five-year crisis. A high-profile scandal which unravelled his life and led to a spell in prison. Andy talks about confronting his mistakes and the strategies he deployed to cope and recover. As Andy says, having heard so many crisis stories from others on the podcast, he thought it was only fair that he now shares his.
Andy’s Crisis Cures:
1.Charles Dickens and The Pickwick Papers: “The old marketing slogan for The News of the World was ‘all human life is here’ and that’s true of Dickens. It’s definitely true of The Pickwick Papers because you’ve got politics, you’ve got the law, you’ve got prison, you’ve got journalism. Everything is there in that book and it’s a cracking read.”
2.Ben Howard – Keep Your Head Up: “Music has also been incredibly important for me and for the family. If I had to choose one [song] it would be Keep Your Head Up by Ben Howard which is a bit of a family anthem.”
3.Château Musar: “It’s what I send to every podcast guest when it’s appropriate… it’s from the Lebanon and I chose it because it is really tasty and also because it is liquid proof that there is good to come from crisis.”
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:19.00 Jane Moore:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? Hosted by Andy Coulson, you might have noticed that I’m not actually Andy Coulson and that’s because for this first episode of the second series he’s put himself on the other side of the microphone. I’m Jane Moore, journalist and broadcaster, a friend of Andy’s and for a number of years his colleague at The Sun.
00:00:40.04 Jane Moore:
And so in this episode I’ll be asking the questions in an attempt to unravel Andy’s five years of crisis. Five years that saw him fall from grace from Number 10 Downing Street, to a cell in a high security prison. During that time Andy faced three criminal trials. He was acquitted in two, including one in Scotland, but was convicted of conspiracy to intercept communications, or phone hacking as it became known, and at the Old Bailey was sentenced to eighteen months.
00:01:11.02 Jane Moore:
Andy’s been upfront about that aspect of his CV during this podcast series and indeed, has talked openly with his former prison mate, the England cricketer Chris Lewis, but he’s never discussed his own crisis in any depth, until now. Andy, hello.
00:01:27.20 Andy Coulson:
00:01:28.11 Jane Moore:
So when you talk to other people you intro it with they have crisis stories worth sharing. But you’ve never shared your own experience. Why are you doing it now?
00:01:41.01 Andy Coulson:
Well I think because of the podcast series. I’ve really enjoyed it, but the process is that I’m asking a whole bunch of really interesting people to share their stories and I just got to the end of the first series and it didn’t seem very fair, frankly, that I hadn’t put myself through the same process. So that’s why we’re doing this.
00:02:04.18 Jane Moore:
Are you nervous?
00:02:05.10 Andy Coulson:
I am a bit, yes.
00:02:06.22 Jane Moore:
You don’t really talk about yourself very much.
00:02:09.12 Andy Coulson:
No, I prefer not to really. There have been the odd conversations. That’s why I love podcasting actually, it’s that it’s not a formal interview process, it’s a conversation. So there have been, during the course of the first series, there have been a few moments where people have asked me, guests have asked me, about my own experiences and I’ve been happy to give a response. But I’ve never done it in any detail other than, of course, over a very long period in a witness box in the Old Bailey.
00:02:40.15 Jane Moore:
I mean in fairness I’ve known you, what, twenty-five years and you were like that before you had a crisis.
00:02:46.01 Andy Coulson:
In the jobs that I did I never really wanted any profile. I was a pretty low profile, it didn’t turn out that way of course, but I was a pretty low-profile editor, at least I tried to be and that’s absolutely how I saw at the job as well when I went into Number 10. I can’t say I succeeded in that regard but that was certainly the instinctive approach that I took to it.
00:03:09.14 Jane Moore:
I wanted to point out before we really get started, that it’s not really an interview about why you ended up in prison because obviously the details of the trial can be Googled. I want to focus on what we don’t know, which is obviously the theme of this podcast, and how you handled that crisis point of your life and of course, the effect that it had on your family. Because you’ve not really spoken about that, have you?
00:03:33.10 Andy Coulson:
No, as I say, only during the course of a very long trial in the Old Bailey where I answered every question, I gave full evidence and answered every question that was asked of me by a fair number of lawyers and a judge. But no, certainly not in this kind of context. Ask away.
00:03:55.18 Jane Moore:
Did you worry that it would come across as self-serving?
00:03:59.17 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, definitely, I mean that’s why I think I have instinctively have never really taken that sort of approach because I don’t much like that. I think that the danger with this conversation, if I’m brutally honest with you, as we sit here right at the start of it, is that it somehow comes off as ‘woe is me’. And that’s absolutely not how I feel. I think ‘woe is me’ are probably the three most useless words in any event. Certainly when you find yourself in crisis and that’s also, more importantly, just not how I see it.
00:04:41.20 Andy Coulson:
I am not… my crisis was not… there were elements of my crisis that were entirely self-inflicted. And although I stand by the position I took in court, in regard to the allegations that I ended up being found guilty of, my view is still that I didn’t break the law. But as I said in court, I made a lorry load of mistakes as an editor. And I made mistakes in my personal life as well. And so I’ve never at any point felt ‘why me?’ about it because that’s just not how I feel. I guess we’ll talk about that in a bit more detail.
00:05:29.02 Jane Moore:
So you’ve known the power and privilege of being a newspaper editor and advisor to David Cameron. Suddenly you’re on trial at the Old Bailey and you’re hearing the word guilty; tell us about that moment.
00:05:43.24 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, it’s a wretched moment and you know immediately really that you’re going to be going to prison. That was very clear I think, almost from the start of the trial, actually, because the profile of the trial was so high. The judge himself, I think, said right at the start, ‘British justice is on trial’ and when you are the person in the dock I think you know that if this goes wrong it’s going to go badly wrong. So I knew at that point that I’d be going to prison and that was obviously not where I thought my life would take me.
00:06:24.13 Andy Coulson:
So even though I’d spent eight and a half months in the Old Bailey in a trial, knowing that that was a possibility, sat in a dock for the large part, there’s a padded green door on your left that you know goes to the cells and there’s the exit on the right. And although I’d spent all that time wondering am I going to go left or right, when you hear the word guilty you know full well that you’re going to be going left. And that is not a good moment.
00:06:55.09 Jane Moore:
And what happens when you go left?
00:06:58.07 Andy Coulson:
Well, that didn’t happen immediately because there’s a period of time between verdict and sentencing. So I actually had a little bit of time at home to be able to prepare, which I was very grateful for, because that allowed me to talk to the kids and to talk to Eloise and get things sorted, get organised as best I could. And then before you know it you’re back in court with a suitcase waiting to find out how long you’re going to go to prison for. And no one can give you that answer in advance. No one knows in advance. You’ve got parameters but you don’t really know because in the end that is obviously in the gift of the judge.
00:07:40.07 Andy Coulson:
And then I was told it’s eighteen months and before you know it you’re through that green door and you’re handcuffed and you’re taken down to the cells. And the Old Bailey is a court that is straight out of central casting. It’s a very long Victorian corridor full of very old Victorian cells in which there have been some very famous and very notorious criminals over the years. And suddenly you’re sat in one of them. On one level it’s fundamentally depressing to find yourself there. But I can’t lie about it, I also found it, I think because I’m a journalist by trade, I found some elements of it fascinating.
00:08:27.16 Jane Moore:
Let’s just back track a bit there. You talk about your wife Eloise and also your three sons. So Harvey, Monty, Finn. I know Finn was very young, Harvey was, what, fourteen? Monty was twelve? So when you came back after being found guilty and before obviously going back to be sentenced, you had that time at home. What conversations did you have with your older boys?
00:08:53.14 Andy Coulson:
Well, we did talk about it and we’d already talked about it, I suppose, because the thing was so public and had been so long running, Ellie and I took the view that we weren’t going to try and attempt to hide any of it from them. So, although they were still pretty young, they’d had a crash course in the law and in the legal process, if you like, already. So we’d had lots of conversations but then, yes, we had to have a conversation about what it meant.
00:09:24.05 Andy Coulson:
And I talked them through it and I explained that I’d been found guilty and that I’d be going to a prison and then I’d be moved at some point to an open prison and then they could come and see me. And they were nothing short of incredible. I mean, they’ve been unbelievably, never mind my resilience and my crisis, the truth of the matter is it was as much a crisis for them and for Ellie as it was for me. And that brings with it a whole bunch of other issues as well.
00:09:58.13 Jane Moore:
So you’re packing your bag. Normally you’re packing to go on holiday, but you’re packing to go to prison. You’ve got, obviously, a lot of press outside your front door. That must have felt weird being the focus of the media storm?
00:10:15.03 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, well I’d had that for years by that stage and not at any point, I think it’d be grossly hypocritical for me to even begin to whinge about that, so I never had any issue with that at all. And I have to say that we never had any problems. People treated us with respect and we did the same. We’ve made a lot of cups of tea for journalists standing on the end of our drive over the years, quite happily.
00:10:35.21 Jane Moore:
But you knew how to dodge them?
00:10:37.14 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, my view was that they had absolutely every right to be at the end of my drive and they had every right to try and get a picture of me and I had every right to avoid it. So I did.
00:10:47.21 Jane Moore:
What did you do?
00:10:48.18 Andy Coulson:
So on the morning that I knew I was going to prison I went to the back of my garden, I live out in the country, I went over the fence and into a field and then eventually I arranged for a local cab. A bemused local cabbie found himself sitting in the middle of a cornfield and off we went to the station. And then before you know it, I live a way away from London, finally we got in and I had a final meeting with my lawyers. My brother was there and one of my best pals, Chris, and there was a lot of manly hugging and goodbyes. Then before you know it, because my sentencing was first in the order of the day if you like, in the Old Bailey, I was then sat in that cell and was there for quite a while because they keep you there until the end of play and then everyone gets put on the bus and ferried off.
00:11:41.05 Jane Moore:
Well, talking of which, as a journalist, we also know the picture that everybody wants is of somebody in the prison van being taken away. Now, I don’t recall seeing one of you.
00:11:53.05 Andy Coulson:
No, I was acutely aware of that, having published so many of those pictures. So when I was taken from the cell, you’re then handcuffed and you line up and you wait to get on the bus. I have to say, everyone through that process, the prison officers down in the cells at the Old Bailey, could not have been, frankly, more friendly. People were being genuinely kind to me. I thought there was no brutality about it at all.
00:12:27.20 Andy Coulson:
And, in fact, the last words from one of those prison officers to me as I was about to get on the bus was, ‘keep your head down, you’ll get through it, life moves on’. And I thought that was very generous of them really.
00:12:40.07 Jane Moore:
So how did you avoid that photograph?
00:12:42.08 Andy Coulson:
So oh, you’ve got a window next to you and I just sort of turned my back and before I knew it because it’s down, it’s underneath the Old Bailey where you get on the bus, you then go up a ramp and it was a gloriously sunny day, July the fourth, ironically enough Independence Day 2014. And before I knew it, much sooner than I thought, there was sun coming through the windows and then, again it sounds strange I suspect to some people, but I just found the whole thing so utterly absurd. And then I noticed that the windows of the Serco van that I was in were rose-tinted. And I thought to myself…
00:13:24.09 Jane Moore:
00:13:25.11 Andy Coulson:
…Serco are rubbish at security but absolute bloody masters of irony, exactly. And I managed to get down just in time and before you know it you’re off driving through the city and I just remember looking at the bright blue sky really. And there were some jet streams in the sky, without getting too poetic about it. And I just thought to myself, how the hell did I end up here?
00:13:47.00 Jane Moore:
So you pitch up at Category A prison, HMP Belmarsh. What was that like?
00:13:57.13 Andy Coulson:
Well Belmarsh is also a building that’s out of central casting, if I can put it that way. It’s actually a relatively modern prison but it’s got this, as anyone who’s been there either inside or as a visitor will know, this enormous American-style prison wall around its perimeter and massive gates. It’s proper drama and you pull up and the gates open and you know you’re going to prison, you’re in no doubt that you’re going to prison. And then you’re off and you’re into the admission process, which again, is not especially pleasant, I have to say. I was treated perfectly decently and fairly but it’s just something that you think to yourself I can’t quite believe this is happening to me.
00:14:42.15 Jane Moore:
00:14:43.01 Andy Coulson:
Well, just the checking-in process because I’d obviously tried to do some research beforehand. You take some advice. You try and work out what you can take into prison and what you can’t. It turned out that all of my research and all the advice was entirely wrong and so a lot of the stuff that I took in, I wanted a radio, I took some books, all of that was gone, stamps were gone. At that stage there was a book ban in prisons so no chance of getting any books at all. Lots of people were sending me books and I wasn’t allowed to have them because they were, I thought rather ridiculously, banned at that stage by a former colleague of mine, Chris Grayling.
00:15:20.14 Jane Moore:
And that was what, because of the dangers of drug smuggling?
00:15:23.15 Andy Coulson:
Dangers of drug smuggling and all manner of other suggested uses for books.
00:15:32.07 Jane Moore:
And they take all of your clothes away, I assume?
00:15:34.00 Andy Coulson:
They take your clothes when you go to prison, which I think is sensible. I had no complaint about it. One of the principles of prison is that everyone has to be on the same level. And prison is the ultimate leveller. And one of the ways of doing that is making sure everyone is wearing the same clothes when they arrive. So until you are there for, as it turned out for me, a couple of weeks, a bit longer actually, you’ve got to wear this kind of corned beef coloured tracksuit which utterly charming. But I never, at any point, felt that I was being treated worse than anyone else. And I took the view that this is what it is and it is just another place, a pretty unpleasant one, but it’s just another place. I’m with a bunch of other people who are in the same situation as me and I’ve just got to make the best of it really.
00:16:33.02 Jane Moore:
So tell me, what was a typical day at Belmarsh?
00:16:36.04 Andy Coulson:
Well Belmarsh was going through a pretty dysfunctional phase at that stage. It was between governors and there was a proper shortage of staff. There was a real kind of internal crisis, funnily enough, at Belmarsh at that moment. As a result we spent inordinate amounts of time just sat behind a door.
00:16:57.22 Jane Moore:
How much time?
00:16:59.00 Andy Coulson:
Well sometimes literally all day. You’d get out for an hour and then you’d be back in again and you’d do anther twenty-three hours and it was boiling.
00:17:06.23 Jane Moore:
That is brutal.
00:17:08.01 Andy Coulson:
It was boiling hot and it was a glorious summer, as I say. It was that sort of combination of mind-numbing boredom, an awful lot of frustration because I was told that I would be in Belmarsh for a couple of days and then I’d be categorised, given the nature of my conviction, be categorised as a D-Cat pretty swiftly and then I’d be off to an open prison. And that just didn’t happen.
00:17:42.05 Jane Moore:
Why did it not happen?
00:17:43.18 Andy Coulson:
I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, there were lots of theories at the time.
00:17:47.01 Jane Moore:
Do you think it was political?
00:17:48.00 Andy Coulson:
I don’t know. I got told by a couple of prison guards, because I chatted to everyone, again, it’s the journalist in me, I had lots of conversations with other prisoners and with prison guards, prison officers and two of them actually told me ‘You’re just being put to the bottom of the pile Andy’. And why? I don’t know but it was incredibly frustrating mainly, I mean, no one wants to spend two months of their life in a high security prison certainly, but I was mainly concerned about my boys because I wanted to see them and I didn’t want them to visit me in a high security prison. I wanted them to visit me in an open prison. And I can tell you having done both they are very, very different experiences.
00:18:30.09 Jane Moore:
So there came a point where you thought, okay, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. So your boys did come to Belmarsh?
00:18:39.17 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, there came a point where I was told pretty formally, you’re not going anywhere. The problem was that I wasn’t being categorised and I was told categorically, you’re not going to get categorised. Not given a reason why and that you should prepare yourself for spending your sentence here entirely. I told Eloise that and we discussed it and we had discussed it before I went into prison, at what point did we think I’d need to see the boys and they’d need to see me, and we’d reached that point. So ask me what my biggest regret is, I would absolutely say it was the decision that I took to have my two oldest sons, not Finn, come and visit me in Belmarsh, because it was only a couple of weeks after that visit that I got moved.
00:19:34.08 Jane Moore:
And when they came to visit Belmarsh, because a lot of people listening to this will never have been to a Category A prison, even to visit, why is that your regret? What happens to you when you come there?
00:19:49.04 Andy Coulson:
Well because Belmarsh is a high security prison for a reason. There are a lot of very bad people in there and there are also a lot of people like me who are transiting, if you like. Therefore, the search process before you come in for a visit, as a visitor, is pretty unpleasant. There are dogs and there are searches and it’s another one of those sort of movie scenes. That’s a memory I didn’t want my boys to have and I regret that. We talk about it and funnily enough they, it would be wrong to say that they laugh about it, but they found some aspects of it quite fascinating. I just wish that it hadn’t happened.
00:20:31.13 Jane Moore:
As you say, it’s high security for a reason, because there are some pretty serious criminals in there, did you ever feel scared? Because I read at one point, that you’d been pushed down the stairs.
00:20:45.18 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, there was a report online I think, that said that and it was complete nonsense, it didn’t happen. And funnily enough, the governor, or the duty governor pulled me out of the cell one night to ask me whether or not I was okay because he had read the report. I knew nothing about it obviously. I was really concerned. I wasn’t concerned because obviously it wasn’t true, so I wasn’t troubled by that, but I knew that my family would have read it. I knew that Eloise would have read it and I knew that my mum would have read it.
00:21:18.13 Andy Coulson:
So, actually often there are these little small acts of kindness in prison, he didn’t have to do it, but he let me go to the phone and Eloise and say that this thing’s out there but just be assured it’s total rubbish. Which it was. I would say I felt anxious right at the start because it’s the unknown. I didn’t know what was going to happen and I didn’t know what I was going to find. But pretty quickly I got my head around it and although we spent a lot of time behind the door there were also periods of time when you’re allowed out to exercise, walking around a concrete yard. A thoroughly depressing experience with barbed wire around you and over you, actually, to stop helicopters coming in.
00:22:07.08 Andy Coulson:
I got my head around it pretty quickly and what I kind of understood fairly swiftly, is that the thing that should make you nervous about being in prison is violence, obviously. And what I understood quite quickly is that there’s two routes to violence in prison. One you can have total control over and that is don’t get into debt. Simple as that and there’s a lot of that that goes on. There’s a lot of kind of, I’ll help you out here and you help me, and I knew I wasn’t going to engage in any of that. I had plenty of offers and I just didn’t. There’s also one that’s totally out of your control and that is random violence. You can be walking along the landing and someone walking the other way, for whatever reason, decides that the answer to their problem that day is to attack you. That never happened to me.
00:23:08.19 Jane Moore:
Did you not get any aggro at all?
00:23:11.07 Andy Coulson:
No, not at all.
00:23:11.12 Jane Moore:
Because it had been quite a high-profile trial.
00:23:12.16 Andy Coulson:
No, no I had a bit of sarcasm, quite understandably really, a bit of joshing. Actually the most common refrain was ‘It’s not like the House of Commons is it Andy?’ not that I was ever an MP. And there was a bit of joshing as well, particularly with prison officers when I would kind of complain about the process or I would ask the question, ‘Why am I still here when I think I should have been categorised by now?’ and I’d get a wry look that says, ‘Well Tory cuts, Andy’. So I got a lot of that, fair enough really. Funny at least for the first ten times.
00:23:55.00 Jane Moore:
Better than the alternative.
00:23:55.21 Andy Coulson:
Better than the alternative. I saw some pretty unpleasant things. There were some fights but never anything directed at me and nothing that caused me to feel scared in Belmarsh and certainly not when I got to Hollesley Bay which was a different regime altogether.
00:24:16.14 Jane Moore:
So how did you find out, or when did you find out that you were being moved?
00:24:20.19 Andy Coulson:
Well it came very suddenly. Having been told I’d be there for the duration I suddenly got a knock on the door and got chucked a couple of plastic bin liners and they said, ‘Fill these up, you’re off’. Then before I knew it I was standing on the landing and being put into a holding cell and then they told me ‘You’re going to Suffolk, going to a place called Hollesley Bay’. Obviously I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was a D-Cat and therefore would be better than where I was.
00:24:50.13 Andy Coulson:
And it was, it was a much better regime. It’s a prison and a system that’s designed to get prisoners re-engaging with society again and to prepare for release. So you got inmates there who have been in prison for a very long time. If you have a life sentence, if you’ve murdered someone, you will finish your sentence in a prison like Hollesley Bay. And I was able, very quickly, totally different approach, totally different kind of attitude, the governor there, his view was, we’ve got you for a while and we’re going to make the most of it. We’re going to put you to work.
00:25:29.17 Andy Coulson:
So they made me an education orderly and I went and worked with a brilliant woman who runs the education programme at Hollesley Bay and I was effectively her teaching assistant, if you like. And as a result of that I met a large number of prisoners because I was helping them put their CVs together. We were doing, it sounds ridiculous, Dragons’ Den presentations of ideas for what they were going to do when they got released and mock interviews. So that’s how I spent quite a bit of my time there. And I’ve got to be honest with you it was actually really interesting and quite rewarding work.
00:26:06.01 Jane Moore:
I remember coming to see you with Eloise and the boys and you all sort of sit in a gymnasium don’t you? And then we were brought in to see you. I remember, vividly, a young man sitting on his own for the entire duration because nobody came to see him. When you saw very young men like that in prison, now that your own boys are reaching past adulthood, did you, sort of, connect with them?
00:26:41.10 Andy Coulson:
Absolutely, yeah. Actually in the conversation with Chris Lewis we were discussing this. Prison is a, very obviously, stark place but it is also packed with emotion. And there are blokes there, for a whole range of reasons, who are trying to make sense of their lives again and who are disconnected from their families. And I have some views on what works and what doesn’t work in prison having been inside one for a while, though I do not claim to be an expert by any means given the length of time I was there. But this kind of disconnection from family, whatever the circumstances, is just a fundamental negative. And when you see young men being separated from their families in that way it is profoundly depressing.
00:27:37.20 Andy Coulson:
The saddest thing in prison is when you’re queuing up for the phone, because that’s how the system works, you have to wait to be able to use the phone. And so invariably you’re stood behind another prisoner as he makes his call and the amount of times that that prisoner would then turn away from the phone with tears streaming down his face was frequent. There’s a lot of emotions, there’s a lot of different emotions but that is definitely the feature in prison. And that visiting thing, the rule is if you kind of cross the line into the visit and your visitor doesn’t turn up you’re not allowed to leave and that can be brutal.
00:28:22.04 Jane Moore:
So you have to sit there on your own.
00:28:23.21 Andy Coulson:
You have to sit there on your own while the rest of your fellow inmates are with their families and you’ve just got to sit there on your own. And that’s, on any level, regardless of what that person’s story might be, that’s just sad.
00:28:40.02 Jane Moore:
Obviously your boys came to see you there and you tried to keep it as jolly and normal as possible but when they left that must have been hard.
00:28:51.10 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, it is, it is hard. I didn’t find it easy but I’m glad, once we got to Hollesley Bay, I’m very glad we did it. Because they, obviously, are the most important thing in my life, along with Eloise and I wanted them to see that I was okay. I just wanted to see them. I wanted to hear what they were up to and they got on with it, they’ve been incredible throughout. And that is, I have to say, largely thanks to Eloise because she’s, maybe we’ll get onto it, the reason I got through is her. And the reason that I’ve been able to, it’s been a long time since I came out of prison and the reason I’ve been able to get back on my feet, I’ve got a reasonably successful business now and I’ve got some fantastic clients and colleagues, life is pretty good and that is in large part due to her.
00:29:59.16 Jane Moore:
I wanted to talk about Eloise now. So part of the evidence presented at the trial revealed that you had had an affair. Now, she already knew about it, but having it made public was not easy, of course, and then you went to prison. Now, a lot of women, I think, in particular listening to this would think, well we wouldn’t blame her for just giving up on you after all of that but she didn’t. Do you sort of feel, oddly, that all that crisis brought you closer together?
00:30:33.06 Andy Coulson:
Oh yeah, without any shadow of a doubt and that’s thanks to her, not me. I think, as you say, if she had decided enough was enough I don’t think there is anyone who would have blamed her for it. But that didn’t happen and we stayed together and yes, the simple answer to that question, are we stronger as a result? Without any shadow of a doubt as a couple and as a family. All the old clichés are clichés for a reason and that kind of, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger I think is true from the individual point of view but I think it is also true from a family point of view. I think that we are all stronger for it.
00:31:18.09 Andy Coulson:
That doesn’t mean that I’m pleased it happened, I’m not. I’m certainly not proud of the mistakes that I made from a personal perspective. Entirely self-inflicted, entirely my fault. But the net result of all that stuff that happened over the course of five years or more, has definitely made us stronger as a family. I like to think I’m a better husband; I like to think I’m a better father, a better friend. I’m absolutely sure that I’m a better advisor as a result of what happened. I think I’ve been up and down that mountain and that I think is a good and useful thing for my clients. I’m undoubtedly happier.
00:32:06.23 Jane Moore:
Another cliché is that you never know what you’ve got until there’s a danger that you might lose it, which must have been a very real possibility in terms of your marriage in your own head. Was there ever a point through all of this, the trial or prison or any of it, that you cried?
00:32:25.21 Andy Coulson:
There were moments when I felt utter despair. Funnily enough I am a bit of a blubber but it’s normally at something really sort of soft. So I will blub at kids’ school plays, Jeremy Bowen and I actually talked about exactly that. I just think people deal with things in different ways. This podcast is about a crisis and how you get through it. I had proper moments of depression without any shadow of a doubt but I found ways of dealing with that and also, I got a lot of help. I’m a big believer in counselling and therapy and that has helped me enormously, I have to say.
00:33:20.04 Andy Coulson:
When I was in the midst of all this I was encouraged by Eloise and friends to go and talk to someone and I did that. The key to it, I think, with therapy is you have got to find the right person. Again that came out in a previous podcast, I think with Jeremy. That’s the key; you’ve got to get the right therapist and not all therapists are right for all people. You’ve got to find your match and I’ve definitely done that. I use a guy who lives up in Scotland, Ron, who is just outstanding and I still talk to him from time to time now.
00:33:54.04 Jane Moore:
So you just sort of top up when you need it?
00:33:57.07 Andy Coulson:
I do, yeah. I don’t think it’s something that you sort of say right, great, I’ve done that, that’s finished. Certainly not for me. I think it is something that you need to continually look at and work on and assess and I certainly do that.
00:34:11.10 Jane Moore:
So let’s sort of go back in time a bit. You’re a state school educated, Essex lad. I mean, you’ve probably faced a few challenges in your life but an eight-month trial at the Old Bailey, followed by prison is obviously another league. Where did the resilience come from, do you think, to deal with that?
00:34:30.16 Andy Coulson:
Well it’s a mixture of things, I think, as it is for most people. Certainly my upbringing. And my parents are grafters, that was always very clear. The work ethic amongst us all is very clear. We are all hard workers. My mum, who has had a lot of difficulty in her life, is an amazing woman and she’s incredibly resilient. If resilience is genetic then I think I’ve definitely benefited in that regard. I think, it is partly chemistry and I think it’s partly experience and I have got a lot of crisis experience from a professional point of view. So I was a very willing crisis volunteer long before I became a conscript.
00:35:30.06 Andy Coulson:
So as a newspaper editor, it’s a weekly crisis, daily crisis when you’re working on The Sun, which is of course where I spent most of my time, most of my career. And politics is an hourly crisis, right? It’s constantly incoming and my job, in fact, was to manage those crises. I do believe it’s a muscle and my muscle was very well exercised by the time I found myself dealing with my own. I found myself, very quickly, saying things in my own head that I had been saying to members of the cabinet not that long before, albeit them facing different crises, the principles were the same. And that was, you’ve got to accept where you are. You have got to make a plan and you’ve got to focus on the things that you’ve got control of. Don’t try and solve it all. And I had so much incoming. There were so many different things that were unravelling in my life that I realised that if I tried to deal with them all I would probably go mad. And the only way to deal with it was to take one at a time.
00:36:37.15 Andy Coulson:
And that is another common theme that has been coming out in these podcasts is that when you are in crisis, don’t try and take control of everything. Take control of what you actually have control over and, of course, the main thing that you have control over is your own mind-set and your own attitude. And I managed to get there, I have to say I managed to get to that point reasonably quickly and I ran it as a campaign. I ran it as a campaign in my head and I had charts on the wall, at one stage of the house was literally full of files, I was all over it. And that was partly necessary, just from a practical point of view, but it was also definitely a coping mechanism as well.
00:37:25.19 Jane Moore:
Did you attempt to draw perspective from other sources? I’ve never been through what you’ve been through but a lot of people when they have a day or whatever, you think about other people who are worse off than you. Did you do a lot of that?
00:37:42.12 Andy Coulson:
Yeah always. That was something I would do often. And like anyone else there have been other things in my life that have given that perspective.
00:37:57.19 Jane Moore:
00:37:59.02 Andy Coulson:
Well, losing people, like we all have. For me and for Eloise, ask us honestly, was this the worst thing that ever happened to us? I think the answer on one level the answer was yes because it was just so long. But we had a two-week crisis in our life, after Monty was born, in terms of the emotional impact of it was far greater because we felt we were going to lose him…
00:38:27.13 Jane Moore:
00:38:28.11 Andy Coulson:
…not long after he was born. He thankfully survived and is perfectly fit and well now but it was touch and go for a while. And ask me those moments, you know, when your son is going into an operating theatre, compare that moment with the moment of going through the green door that I described; there is no comparison. And so did that help in a way? I think it probably did. It was all part of that experience it’s what you have got to lean on and you change and you evolve and I definitely got to that point by the time I got to prison. Long before in truth.
00:39:15.20 Jane Moore:
We talked a bit, obviously there, about family and knowing the value of your family. What did crisis teach you about friendship?
00:39:25.10 Andy Coulson:
Oh quite a lot. It taught me that I consider myself to be a reasonably good friend but I think I could have been better. So I think it taught me to be a better friend and I say that because I have been so completely blown away by the support and friendship that I’ve had from people who frankly owed me nothing. So ask me, it’s an audit right, when these things happen in your life. It is an audit on your life and your relationships and there were some people, I think, I expected more of them, if I can put it that way. There were a few of those who ran away from the gunfire.
00:40:09.04 Jane Moore:
Why do you think that was?
00:40:10.24 Andy Coulson:
Their choice really. There are very, very few of them that I continue to feel any sort of disappointment about because people have got their own lives and you see that very quickly. But the bigger point for me is that number of people who ran into the gunfire for me who owed me nothing and who have become unbelievable friends and support to me and to the family. Eloise and the boys have to take the gold medal, if you like, for getting me through but there are whole load who get the silver medal and I’m very grateful for it.
00:41:04.07 Jane Moore:
Does David Cameron get the silver medal?
00:41:07.07 Andy Coulson:
I don’t know about that but when I went to work for David, funnily enough the whole friendship thing came up quite quickly. Because not long after I’d started to work for him there was a moment when I picked up the newspaper, I think on a Saturday morning, and I was learning things that I didn’t know about what David was going to do with regards to a trip, I think it was. And I thought this is just hopeless, I’m his Director of Communications and I’m learning things in the paper.
00:41:37.05 Andy Coulson:
So I rang him and we had a conversation and that led me to say, ‘Look you’ve got plenty of friends in your life, you don’t need any more friends, that’s not what this is about, but if this is going to work we do need to be straight with each other with what you are trying to do here and I don’t need you take my advice but I do need you to listen to my advice.’ What I was reading, I disagreed with the sort of planned trip. That was a good moment for us because we were then very clear that this was not about me becoming chums, this was about me being a professional advisor to him and him taking that advice seriously and the relationship on that basis went forward.
00:42:27.10 Andy Coulson:
And of course we became friends because we worked together a long time. David and his family went through, as everyone remembers, some truly appalling times during the period. Appalling times, by the way, that are far in excess that anything that I’ve ever experienced during that time and we became friends. But first and foremost it was a professional relationship and that’s exactly what I wanted it to be and he wanted it to be.
00:42:57.16 Jane Moore:
Are you still friends? When did you last speak to him?
00:42:59.12 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, yeah. I saw him at the beginning of the year. I saw him in January.
00:43:06.16 Jane Moore:
And…? What dinner? Lunch?
00:43:09.02 Andy Coulson:
No we had lunch and we talked about politics, as you might expect and life after politics which is, of course, where he is now.
00:43:20.00 Jane Moore:
Between the jury verdicts at your trial, David issued an apology for hiring you and said it was wrong. The judge actually criticised the timing of the statement and said he was unsure whether it was out of ignorance or deliberate. Which do you think it was?
00:43:38.22 Andy Coulson:
Probably a bit of both. I think he had people advising him at that stage, obviously. And there was clearly a view inside Number 10 that the moment a guilty verdict came we need to get out and start talking and I think that was a bad decision. I think it was wrong. I never asked for any favours at all from anyone but what I didn’t think was fair was for me to be treated differently. I thought I was due what everyone else was due in that kind of situation. And to have a prime minister on television, while my jury was still out, although they’d delivered a verdict on the intercept in communications, they hadn’t delivered a verdict on another charge that was later dropped but no one knew that at that stage. And I thought that was plain wrong and I was livid about it.
00:44:32.16 Jane Moore:
Have you let him know that since?
00:44:34.09 Andy Coulson:
I have, yeah and we’ve had that discussion. But you know what, in the same way, Jane, that I hope that people will not judge me entirely on my mistakes, I’m not going to judge other people entirely on their mistakes. That’s how I sort of see it really and that’s how I see life. And I’ve got to be honest with you, I think that is a change in me because as a newspaper editor, particularly, you are very judgemental. Your job is to be judgemental. You’ve got to be either black or white. You’ve got to be either kind of 200% enthusiastic about something or you’ve got to be outraged. That’s basically where you spend yourself emotionally as an editor, in between those two things. It’s amazing. It’s appalling. And that’s just not where I am anymore.
00:45:40.22 Jane Moore:
So you’d make a lousy newspaper editor now?
00:45:42.15 Andy Coulson:
I think I would, to be honest, yeah, because I’m just not outraged enough by much anymore.
00:45:48.21 Jane Moore:
In his memoir, David Cameron, wrote that he was wrong to insist that you were innocent until proven guilty and that he should have removed you in 2010 until the scandal snowballed. Do you think that’s fair?
00:46:04.01 Andy Coulson:
Well I just think for anyone, him or anyone, me included, trying to live life through the rear-view mirror is an utterly pointless exercise, so I don’t know. If that’s how he feels, that’s how he feels. All I know is that when I took the job, actually, I said to him, ‘I’m taking this job, David, on the basis that I will not go into Downing Street’ because that was the deal I’d done with Eloise. Because I’d worked very hard at The News of the World, working weekends and god knows what else. And I said, look ‘I’m going to do this for a while, I think it’s fascinating, I think it will be an amazing achievement to try and help him get into Number 10 but I’m not going to stay’.
00:46:42.23 Andy Coulson:
And then as we got closer to it and as it looked likely that we were going to succeed David sat me down and said, ‘I need you and I want you to stay and I don’t know how long you can give it but I want you to stay and be in Downing Street with me’, which was, I have to say, enormously flattering. So I changed my mind. And I could equally say, why on earth did you do that Andy? Ask me where all the bad decisions are and there are quite a few, you might argue that’s one of them. But that’s the really easy answer to give, isn’t it?
00:47:17.15 Andy Coulson:
Because the truth is, for the nearly year that I was there, I loved it, Jane. It was an amazing place to be and it was fascinating and rewarding and I was reasonably good it and I loved my colleagues. We brought a brilliant team we had the coalition. I was working with people from another party and we all made that work really well. So it’s just too easy, I think, either for him or for me to say, I wish it had never happened because you make decisions in the moment.
00:47:46.23 Jane Moore:
Well that was sort of going to be my next question because undoubtedly your role at Downing Street heightened the interest in your trial.
00:47:54.24 Andy Coulson:
Yeah it was a whole…
00:47:55.23 Jane Moore:
And I was going to say in hindsight would you have taken that job?
00:47:59.22 Andy Coulson:
Hindsight yeah, but honestly hindsight is pointless in my view, particularly when you are trying to get through the crisis, right? Again, that is what this podcast is mainly about. And I think that is a clear lesson, that the ‘what if’ is as pointless as the ‘why me’. It takes you nowhere. What happened, happened; you’ve got to accept it, your good decisions and your bad decisions and you have just got to move forward so trying to unpick in the past… Ask me what was the kind of, from that sort of, I don’t want to overstate it but that mental health issue, if you like, without doubt the most damaging, corrosive thing, is that reliving the past.
00:48:50.21 Andy Coulson:
I was an editor of the News of the World for four years. I spent five years talking about it. And it’s like eating rotten fruit. It’s an unnatural thing to do to relive your life. And by the way if all you are doing is reliving your life through a negative prism it’s a fundamentally unhealthy thing to do. And that was corrosive. That was very difficult. And the other, in the same way as I have just said that I got enormous enjoyment from the political job, there is also a danger that because my newspaper career ended so badly, that you, sort of, chuck out all the good stuff there.
00:49:30.17 Andy Coulson:
And it was over 20 years of my life, Jane, as you know. We worked together for a long time. And we had a lot of fun is the truth of it. There were mistakes made during my time at The News of the World, without any shadow of a doubt, but my twenties were professionally rewarding, fascinating and fun and newspapers were, I can’t speak for now because I’ve been out of them for so long, were a very exciting place to be.
00:49:53.11 Jane Moore:
You are just talking there about your absolute love of that job at Downing Street. When you resigned, did you feel the sense of the crisis that was about to come your way at that point? Is that why you resigned?
00:50:09.14 Andy Coulson:
There were a lot of politics in it. There were a lot of agendas being played. I was an ex-Murdoch employee in government and a lot of people really didn’t like that and saw a lot of conspiracies within that, that I was some kind of stooge, which I absolutely was not. I left and David didn’t want me to go. Nobody there wanted me to go. I was encouraged to stay but I just felt from a practical point of view, because I am of course a resigning recidivist, much in the same way as I felt when I was at The News of the World, how on earth am I able to sit here and write a leader, criticising that outrage thing again, criticising a politician when I’ve got a reporter sat in jail? How can I do that? That’s why I resigned from The News of the World and then when I was in Downing Street, I’m there thinking how on earth can I do this job? How can I be the director of communications in Downing Street when I’m on the front pages? It’s hopeless. And that’s the reason why I resigned.
00:51:16.23 Jane Moore:
I mean two of those jobs there, that you mentioned, the powerful jobs, obviously they do bring their own sort of sets of criticism with them. Some people said that you deserved everything you got by going to prison and others, I think when you were talking to Richard Bacon in a previous podcast, he said that your sentence was very harsh. How do you view it?
00:51:44.15 Andy Coulson:
I think that my sentence, having been found guilty of the crime, was probably about right. I felt it was a bit on the steep side but it was within the parameters, so it’s up to the judge, the sentencing in technical terms. Ask me if I felt I should have been convicted and the answer is obviously no because I pleaded not guilty and I made my case but I obviously didn’t succeed for the jury. The two others, well one of them got dropped and one I was acquitted but that’s the system. That’s what we have here. And obviously for me I’m going to say it’s an imperfect system but I’m certainly not arguing that it should have been done some other way.
00:52:27.03 Andy Coulson:
I was pretty unhappy about being put through a public enquiry on television before I got to trial. I thought that was pretty unusual and unfair but it happened so I had to deal with it. The court felt that they could deal with it so that’s where that ended. But I accepted the system. I accepted the verdict in the end, or rather its consequences I accepted. I didn’t accept the verdict but I certainly accepted its consequences. And I tried to make the best of it. I think there are probably people who think that I should still be in prison. I think there are people who probably thing that the door should have been locked forever. There are probably people out there who maybe even think worse but there is nothing I can do about that. I think people are due their opinion. It’s that judgement thing again, you know.
00:53:22.24 Andy Coulson:
I quite like the one in five theory; that out of five people that you meet, three of them will be indifferent, one will think that you’re absolute superstar and the other one will never want to look you in the face again. I think that’s probably about right and so I have no issue with other people’s views about me. I’ve got very used to that. I think actually, given that I was a tabloid newspaper editor and a political communications director, I don’t really think there’s much of a moral high-horse for me to climb on if people want to form a view of me. Nobody put a gun to my head and told me to do those jobs. I wasn’t forced to be a tabloid newspaper editor and I wasn’t forced to be a Tory spin-doctor, if that’s the description you want to use. Those were my choices and when you take jobs like that, people are going to form a view.
00:54:17.16 Jane Moore:
Do you feel a need to keep on apologising?
00:54:20.22 Andy Coulson:
I think if people want to talk about my time at The News of the World, that conversation should always start with an apology and I have apologised several times. I have apologised during the trial and I’ll do it again now here. I am very sorry for the mistakes that I made at The News of the World.
00:54:40.13 Jane Moore:
Mistakes like what?
00:54:41.04 Andy Coulson:
Well I will always argue that the mistakes were not criminal because that’s what I spent a lot of time standing in a witness box arguing and because it’s what I believe. But there are a whole bunch of mistakes from a leadership point of view, I was the boss. And a whole lot of stuff happened at The News of the World which should not have happened during my time and I’m sorry about that because the impact of it on an awful lot of people was, the result of it was a lot of pain and a lot of hurt for people and I totally accept that and I am very sorry for it.
00:55:15.05 Jane Moore:
We’re obviously talking about a whole series crises in a way with you, it’s like crisis Whac-A-Mole. What was the apex of your crisis do you think? When were your darkest days?
00:55:35.03 Andy Coulson:
Well I think for most people, not all actually, but most people who go to prison is the kind of beginning of the end because yes you’re in a van, yes you’re going to Belmarsh, but you know now you are on the road, actually, to the end. There’s a door that you’re going to go through. But I didn’t have that because I knew that there would be one, possibly two more trials when I came out of Belmarsh. In fact there was a feeling that I may never get out until those trials were over. That I’d go from one to the other in custody, if you like.
00:56:09.12 Andy Coulson:
That moment when I rang, I spoke to my lawyers from prison and I was told, because there was a view that the Scottish case, because it was such a nonsense, would be dropped. Then we got word that, no it wasn’t going to be, it was going to push on. That came not long after I arrived in Belmarsh and that was probably the worst moment. Because then you know actually, it’s not just a matter of getting through this, I’m into it all over again. And it’s going to be Groundhog Day and actually the consequences of that trial could be even worse and it’s Scotland and then a whole load of politics attached to that and there’s a whole load of new agendas. Having to ring Eloise and say, it’s not just about getting through this prison sentence, we are going to do it all over again, that was probably the worst moment.
00:57:03.19 Jane Moore:
We now know, obviously, that you came through all of that, you served your time, the Scottish situation went away.
00:57:11.24 Andy Coulson:
I was acquitted, yeah.
00:57:13.01 Jane Moore:
You were acquitted. Do you still have dark days? Does that tail occasionally whip round and hit you?
00:57:22.12 Andy Coulson:
Yeah I have occasional grey days. I don’t have too many dark days any more but I do have the odd grey day, I think everybody does, for all sorts of reasons. Some of them not even necessarily related to the stuff we’ve been talking about here, it’s just life. But I’ve got some good techniques now. I’ve got a better understanding of myself, I suppose, without wishing to get too airy-fairy about it. So I spot the signs and I know what to do and I know how to kind of avoid it. And it is all about cues and nudges that push you in a certain direction and I just try and avoid those.
00:58:02.09 Andy Coulson:
The main thing for me is that bitterness bullet, you’ve just got to keep dodging it, because bitterness really does send you only one way, it will only ever send you backwards. And Eloise, who is a considerably more evolved human being than I am, knew that long before I did and she’s trained me well in that regard. She’s just not got a bitter bone in her body. I think that’s been an enormous help.
00:58:37.03 Jane Moore:
Hard not to be though I would have thought. Do you feel the need to sometimes wear that like a badge, to own it in certain situations?
00:58:46.00 Andy Coulson:
Yeah I don’t wear it like a badge but I don’t hide it because it’s true and there’s nothing I can do about it now. It is a fact of my life and it is an upsetting fact of my life. I won’t ever be at peace with it, I suspect in one sense, because it hurts. I often read people saying that it doesn’t really matter. That these prison sentences, you end up in a holiday camp prison. I can tell you that Belmarsh is not a holiday camp by any measure. I remember reading, after I came out, that I had been released after just five months on good behaviour. That’s all nonsense. I wasn’t released on good behaviour, that’s the system.
00:59:36.11 Jane Moore:
And you had to wear a tag.
00:59:37.06 Andy Coulson:
That’s what you do and then you go onto a tag and then, by the way, you are on licence for another lump of time and you are very restricted. But more that, my conviction is spent now, it’s gone. It’s not on my record. I’m pleased about that but someone needs to tell Google. The way I choose to deal with it and the way I’ve chosen to deal with it is be positive and go and build a business and employ some brilliant people, which I now do and go and work with fantastic set of clients, which I do. And keep the smile on my face and move myself and my family forward every day, which is exactly what we do, it’s exactly our attitude. As every step forward you take, again without trying to get too poetic about it, that rucksack, which is how I see it, it’s a rucksack with a bunch of rocks in it and every six months or so it gets significantly lighter. And actually, I don’t feel it much right now at all, life is good.
01:00:40.05 Jane Moore:
Okay and finally you asked this of all your guests, the three crisis cures, if you like, and you know the rules; it can’t be a person. So what are yours?
01:00:53.10 Andy Coulson:
It’s very hard this to get it down to three. But the first is reading has been very important through my crisis. I love a good book both fiction and non-fiction. And in prison, as I mentioned, there was that book ban and I could not have been more delighted on the day that I finally got into the library at Belmarsh and even more delighted that there was a whole shelf of Dickens because I love a bit of Dickens. The Pickwick Papers, I think, I would probably choose as the favourite because they used to say about The News of the World, the old marketing slogan for The News of the World was ‘all human life is here’ and that’s true of Dickens. It’s definitely true of the Pickwick Papers because you’ve got politics, you’ve got the law, you’ve got prison, you’ve got journalism. Everything is there in that book and it’s a cracking read. So I’d start with that I think.
01:01:50.00 Andy Coulson:
The second, I think, would be music which has also been incredibly important for me and for the family. Very hard to get it down to ten songs let alone get it down to one but I think if I had to choose one it would be Keep Your Head Up by Ben Howard which is a bit of a family anthem.
01:02:09.11 Andy Coulson:
And then the third thing would be… actually it’s what I actually send to every podcast guest, when it’s appropriate to do so, it’s a wine called Château Marsyas and it’s from the Lebanon and I chose it because it is really tasty and also because it is liquid proof that there is good to come from crisis given where this wine is made.
01:02:40.16 Jane Moore:
Do I get one of those for doing this?
01:02:42.17 Andy Coulson:
Oh you do Jane, yes, you do.
01:02:44.05 Jane Moore:
Good, glad to hear it, well let’s go and drink it. Andy, thank you very much.
01:02:47.23 Andy Coulson:
01:02:48.17 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.