Apr 15, 10:36 AM EDT

Coulson: 'Didn't know about tabloid phone hacking'


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LONDON (AP) -- Prime Minister David Cameron's former communications chief said under oath Tuesday that he was never involved in phone hacking when he was the editor of a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, though he acknowledged he hadn't known at the time that the practice was illegal.

Andy Coulson was asked by his lawyer in court whether he was "ever party to or in agreement with phone hacking at the News of the World." Coulson answered: "No, I was not."

Coulson said he would have considered the practice of illegal eavesdropping - now known to have been widespread at the newspaper - "a breach of privacy" and "lazy journalism." But he said he was not aware at the time that it was against the law.

He said in the years immediately after he joined the newspaper as deputy editor in 2000 he was aware "in vague terms" that it was possible to listen to another person's mobile phone voicemails by using a PIN code.

"I think it was in the ether," he said. "It was something that was gossiped about."

Coulson and six others are on trial on charges stemming from the revelation that over several years the News of the World regularly eavesdropped on the voicemails of people in the public eye. All the defendants deny wrongdoing.

Coulson, 46, edited the News of the World from 2003 until 2007, resigning after the paper's royal reporter and a private investigator were convicted of hacking the phones of royal aides. He then served as Cameron's chief spin doctor until quitting when the hacking scandal re-erupted in early 2011.

He is charged with conspiring to hack phones and to pay a public official for information.

Coulson is expected to give evidence for several weeks, the first time he has spoken publicly about the allegations - and one of the few times he has spoken publicly at all. As the man behind Cameron's media strategy, he stayed in the background and was rarely photographed.

Coulson looked composed as he sat in the witness box, wearing a gray suit, white shirt, blue tie and black-rimmed glasses. He answered questions clearly - though there were many details he said he could not be sure of after so much time.

He was asked about the story that would bring down the News of the World - an April 2002 article about the disappearance of schoolgirl Milly Dowler that referred to messages left on the 13-year-old's mobile phone. The newspaper had learned of the messages through hacking, though that fact did not become public until nine years later.

Public revulsion at the news that a newspaper had hacked the phone of a girl who was later found murdered led Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in July 2011.

Coulson was deputy editor in 2002, but was in charge of that edition of the newspaper because his boss - and on-off-lover - Rebekah Brooks was on vacation.

He said he did not recall wondering where the information about the voicemails had come from but had not thought highly of the "fairly unremarkable story."

In later editions it was moved from page nine to page 30 and edited to remove quotes from the messages left on Dowler's phone. Coulson said he had probably overseen the rearrangement of pages, but denied it was done to cover the paper's tracks.

He said had he known Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked, "I would have been very concerned about it. I think my instinctive concern would have been that this is interference in a police investigation."

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