Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson secretly listened in on a phone call designed to entice comedian Steve Coogan into revealing personal information, it was alleged at the Leveson Inquiry today.
Mr Coulson, who became Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director, was also accused of using a surreptitious recording of another call to Coogan to betray a promise to omit “lurid” details about the break-up of one of the star’s relationships.
Coogan told the inquiry into press standards that tabloid newspapers were “like the mafia” and said other celebrities feared being victimised by the media if they gave evidence to Lord Leveson’s hearings.
The star, best known for his comic character Alan Partridge, described two alleged stings conducted on him by the News of the World to disclose details about his private life.
He said he received a warning from showbiz reporter Rav Singh about the first, which was conducted in August 2002 when Mr Coulson was the paper’s deputy editor.
“I would receive a phone call which would come from Andy Coulson’s office. There was a girl in Andy Coulson’s office who was going to speak to me on the phone and the phone call would be recorded,” he said.
“She would try to entice me into talking about intimate details of her and my life. And I was told by Rav Singh that Andy Coulson would be listening to the call.”
Coogan said he took the phone call but did not divulge any information and no story was published.
On the second occasion, in April 2004 when Mr Coulson had become editor, Mr Singh recorded a personal conversation with the comedian, the inquiry heard.
Coogan said: “I was in a relationship that was breaking up because of an affair I had.
“He (Mr Singh) called me and said, ’look, I want to help you’. I begged him not to put in some of the more lurid details of the story. He said that if I confirm certain aspects, the more lurid details would be left out.
“The more embarrassing, which I know would upset my then wife’s family, would be omitted.
“After that, my manager received a phone call from Andy Coulson saying they had recorded the whole phone call and they were going to print it in the newspaper.”
Mr Coulson resigned as News of the World editor in January 2007 after the paper’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed for phone hacking.
He was appointed as the Conservative Party’s director of communications and planning four months later and followed Mr Cameron into Number 10 in May 2010.
But he stood down as Downing Street communications chief in January this year amid the growing scandal over the illegal interception of voicemails by the News of the World.
Mr Coulson was arrested by Scotland Yard detectives in July on suspicion of phone hacking and corruption, and is currently on police bail.
Mr Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry in July in response to the revelation that the News of the World commissioned a private detective to hack murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone after she disappeared in 2002.
Giving evidence to the inquiry about how he has been dogged by the press over the years, Coogan admitted that he was no “paragon of virtue” but said unlike some other celebrities he did not seek fame.
“One could argue that there are those who make their career out of being famous and those people do enter into a Faustian Pact, where they use the press to raise their profile,” he said.
“They exploit the press for their own ends. They are in the fame game.”
Explaining why he felt able to appear before the inquiry, he said: “Many other celebrities, for want of a better word, have told me that they agree with me and they would like to come here.
“But they don’t have the stomach for it and they fear what will happen.
“Ironically, because of the stories that have been run about me, my closet is empty of skeletons due to the press so in a way, unwittingly maybe, I may be immune.”
Coogan told Lord Justice Leveson that the inquiry was not just about him and actor Hugh Grant, who has already given evidence.
“It’s not the Steve and Hugh show. We are here, not with any great enthusiasm,” he said.
“We are here because somebody has to represent all those other people who have not got the stomach to be here.”
The inquiry also heard today from former Blackburn Rovers captain Garry Flitcroft, who suggested that journalists may have hacked his phone to get a story about his adultery.
Flitcroft took out an injunction in April 2001 to prevent the People newspaper running a “kiss and tell” story about a brief affair, but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal in early 2002.
The Bolton-born father-of-three, who is now separated from his wife, told the inquiry he “strongly suspected” that reporters hacked his phone to discover details of a second woman with whom he had a relationship, but had no firm evidence.
“That is just speculation. I have no evidence at all. It just seems a massive coincidence that the same newspaper gets two girls in the space of a couple of months,” he said.
Flitcroft told the inquiry that the revelations about his affairs may have contributed to his father’s suicide in 2008.
Meanwhile, supermodel Elle Macpherson’s former business adviser Mary-Ellen Field described to the hearing how she lost her job after being suspected of leaking stories.
Ms Field said she had “absolutely not” spoken to the media about the model.
The inquiry has heard that journalists obtained the stories by hacking the phones of Ms Field and Macpherson.
The first part of the Leveson Inquiry, which is sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, is looking at the culture, practices and ethics of the press in general.
The second part, examining the extent of unlawful activities by journalists, will not begin until detectives have completed their investigation into alleged phone hacking and corrupt payments to police and any prosecutions have been concluded.