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By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Andy Coulson, the former media chief to British Prime Minister David Cameron, told a London court on Wednesday he had listened to a recording of hacked voicemail messages left by the country's then interior minister as far back as 2004.
Coulson, who was editing Rupert Murdoch's now defunct News of the World tabloid at the time, is on trial for conspiring to hack into voicemail messages in a case that has shaken the media tycoon's empire and Britain's political elite.
Coulson has denied the charge but he told a hushed and packed Old Bailey on Wednesday one of his senior reporters had once played him excerpts of voicemail messages left by then Home Secretary David Blunkett on the mobile phone of a woman with whom he was having a relationship.
"This was the first and only time voicemail messages were played to me," Coulson said, appearing in the witness box for the third day in a trial that has already run for 5 1/2 months.
Coulson said he had been away on holiday in Italy when the paper's chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck told him about the recordings. Initially, he said, he was shocked, angry and told the reporter to end his investigation into the affair.
"I told Neville ... to stop whatever it is you are doing," Coulson told the court."
The jury has heard Thurlbeck has already pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally tap into voicemail messages.
On Coulson's return, Thurlbeck came to see him to argue for his story about Blunkett, saying it was in the public interest because the minister had been discussing terrorism arrests in the voicemail messages and his visit to Britain's spying agency
Having considered the matter for a couple of days and after consulting an executive and company lawyer, Coulson decided he would run the story.
He added that he had not known at the time that phone hacking was a crime.
"There was no mention made of illegality," Coulson said of the legal advice he received.
Armed with details about the affair, Coulson, who later went on to work alongside Cameron in Downing Street, confronted Blunkett about his relationship in the then minister's office in Sheffield, northern England.
The court heard phone records showed that during that trip Coulson was in close contact with Rebekah Brooks, the former boss of Murdoch's British newspaper arm, who is on trial for conspiring to phone-hack alongside Coulson. She denies the charge.
The jury has already been told that Coulson and Brooks engaged in an affair during this period and the prosecution allege that this means both knew as much as the other about the illegal practices used by the tabloid's staff.
"We spoke to each other and texted each other frequently," Coulson told the court. "The idea that we somehow shared the story is nonsense."
The issue of phone-hacking first came to light in 2006 when the News of the World's royal editor Clive Goodman and a private investigator admitted intercepting the voicemail messages of royal aides.
Coulson, who was the editor at the time, quit the paper but Murdoch's British newspaper arm always maintained that Goodman had been a "rogue" reporter who had acted alone in intercepting voicemail messages.
Shortly after quitting, Coulson went on to work for Conservative leader Cameron first in opposition and then in Downing Street after the May 2010 election.
He was forced to quit the high-profile role eight months later when the phone-hacking scandal re-emerged as a major issue.
(Writing by Kate Holton; editing by Stephen Addison)