Leveson Inquiry: PCC 'mistake' over Andy Coulson

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Media captionTim Toulmin conceded that the PCC had taken a "timorous" approach over interviewing Mr Coulson

The Press Complaints Commission should have questioned Andy Coulson over phone hacking after it emerged at the News of the World, its former director says.

Tim Toulmin conceded at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards that the PCC had taken a "restrictive and timorous" approach over the matter.

He said the the PCC had thought its powers would have "held little traction" with ex-editor Mr Coulson.

He said he had later accepted that this had been a mistake.

Mr Toulmin held the post when royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for intercepting royal voicemails at the News of the World in 2007.

Mr Coulson resigned as editor in the wake of the scandal, saying he took "ultimate responsibility" for what had happened.

Mr Toulmin said the PCC had discussed whether to ask Mr Coulson questions after his resignation, but concluded that he would not have felt obliged to comply with such a request.

Instead of investigating what had happened, the PCC had run a "forward-looking exercise", Mr Toulmin said.

"I later accepted this was a mistake," he said.

Lord Justice Leveson said it would have been "extremely powerful" if Mr Coulson had refused to speak to the PCC.

Editors admonished

Mr Toulmin also said the 2009 report which appeared to dismiss Guardian allegations and clear the News of the World of phone hacking was "obviously wrong".

"The decision to make a qualitative judgment on the evidence dismissing the Guardian's evidence was a major mistake, there's no doubt about that. It's a great regret that happened."

Mr Toulmin said the PCC was a "complaints body" rather than a "regulator".

But he expressed "regret" that some people who might have suffered at the hands of the press had never heard of the PCC.

Mr Toulmin told the inquiry the commission could "react quickly to complainants or to events".

The PCC members did not regard themselves as defending the press, but helping the public remedy problems they had with a free press, he said.

Lord Justice Leveson asked if it was an error everyone had made in calling the PCC a self-regulating body when it was not a regulator at all, with which Mr Toulmin agreed.

New framework

Meanwhile, current chairman Stig Abell said the media could be asked to operate within a contractual framework in future.

But he warned: "The bottom line with all of this is that if major players aren't willing to be part of a system then ... even though it creates huge difficulties, something more impositional from the state will take place.

He said a new model would create a "more solid, more explicit and more enforceable" set of parameters within which the press could operate.

This could work through a "two-pronged" system with one arm addressing complaints quickly and efficiently and the other designed to investigate broader breaches and potentially impose financial penalties, he said.

The Leveson Inquiry was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2011 amid new revelations of phone hacking at the now-defunct News of the World.

The first phase is examining the practices and ethics of the press. A second phase of the inquiry, after a police investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World is complete, will focus on unlawful conduct by the press and the police's initial hacking investigation.

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