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He was born in London, England, the son of the Telegraph's crime correspondent C. A. Coughlin. The eldest of four children (his younger brother is Vincent Coughlin QC), he grew up in Upminster, Essex. Raised as a Catholic, at the age of 11 he won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, and at 18 gained a scholarship to read Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he specialised in the Industrial Revolution under the tutelage of the historian Simon Schama.
In August 1977 Coughlin joined the Thomson Regional Newspapers graduate trainee course and after undertaking his initial training in Cardiff served out his indentures as a trainee reporter with the Reading Evening Post. In November 1980 Coughlin joined The Daily Telegraph as a general news reporter. Coughlin has spent most of his journalistic career working for what is now the Telegraph Media Group.
As a young reporter for his newspaper, he was initially given responsibility for covering a number of major crime stories, such as the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper and the Brixton riots.
Becoming a foreign correspondent, his first big assignment was to cover the American invasion of Grenada in late 1983. From there he was sent to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war where he developed his interest in the Middle East and international terrorism. After the Telegraph group was bought in 1985 by the Canadian businessman Conrad Black, Coughlin was appointed The Daily Telegraph's Middle East correspondent by Max Hastings, the newspaper's new editor.
Coughlin opened the newspaper's bureau in Jerusalem, and spent the next three years covering a multitude of stories throughout the region. In April 1986 he narrowly escaped being kidnapped by Hezbollah gunmen in Beirut, the day before another British journalist John McCarthy was kidnapped. In March 2009 Coughlin recalled this experience in My Alter Ego, a programme for BBC Radio 4. In 1989 Coughlin returned to London, where he transferred to The Sunday Telegraph and was appointed the newspaper's chief foreign correspondent. During the next few years he received several promotions, becoming Foreign Editor in 1997 and Executive Editor in 1999. The following year The Sunday Telegraph won the prestigious "newspaper of the year" award at the British Press Awards.
He has appeared as a foreign-affairs analyst on the American networks CNN, Fox News, CBS, ABC and MSNBC and NBC. In Britain he broadcasts regularly for the BBC and Sky News.
In 2006 Coughlin rejoined The Daily Telegraph as the newspaper's Defence and Security Editor after a brief spell writing for the Daily Mail, and later that year was promoted to the post of Executive Foreign Editor. He writes a weekly column, "Inside Abroad", and comments on a broad range of subjects, with a special interest in defence and security issues, the Middle East and international terrorism. He maintains a blog for the Telegraph's website.
Coughlin is the author of several books. His first book was Hostage: The Complete Story of the Lebanon Captives (Little, Brown 1992), which was followed by a study of the politics of modern Jerusalem, A Golden Basin Full of Scorpions which was BBC correspondent John Simpson's "book of the year" and was described as "excellent, a brilliant book" by the author A. N. Wilson.
His next book, American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror (ECCO, 2006) was nominated Kirkus Reviews books of the year. In 2009 Coughlin published Khomeini’s Ghost (Macmillan, London, and ECCO, New York City) a study of the life of Ayatollah Khomeini and his impact on the radicalisation of the Islamic world during the previous thirty years. Historian Dominic Sandbrook, reviewing Khomeini's Ghost in The Observer, wrote: "Readers already familiar with recent Iranian history will not discover much new information in Coughlin's account, but it nevertheless makes a very readable and entertaining introduction to a nation badly misunderstood in the west. And while Coughlin makes no secret of his deep antipathy to the Iranian government, his treatment of its founder is satisfyingly nuanced". Iranian-American journalist Azadeh Moaveni, in a review for The New York Times, asserted that the book contained factual errors and misrepresentations of facts, the author having documents out of context to bolster his argument.
In January 2014 Thomas Dunne Books published Coughlin's book on Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans.
Gaddafi legal case
Telegraph Newspapers apologised for a libel against Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in April 2002. The Sunday Telegraph had published an article by Coughlin in November 1995, then the newspaper's chief foreign correspondent (and a piece for the newspaper's Mandrake column, published during the following month, which quoted Coughlin) alleging that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was involved in a massive criminal operation with Iranian officials that involved counterfeit notes and money laundering in Europe based on information received by British intelligence and banking officials. The Sunday Telegraph was served with a libel writ by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The original story followed a lunch given by Malcolm Rifkind, then Foreign Secretary, at which editor Charles Moore and colleagues were present, and later briefings given to Coughlin by MI6 agents who had insisted on the preservation of their anonymity.
After a hearing at the Court of Appeal in October 1998, it was established that the journalists had a right to bring the story before the public under the Qualified privilege, under the Reynold's Defence rules established by an earlier case, Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd the previous July.
The main court case followed in 2002, which was defended by the Telegraph Group and was eventually settled out of court without any damages being paid, and with both sides agreeing to pay their own costs. In 2002 Geoffrey Robertson QC made a statement on behalf of the Telegraph Group stating "there was no truth in the allegation that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi participated in any currency sting".
In late 2003, in a front-page exclusive story, Coughlin revealed a leaked intelligence memorandum, purportedly uncovered by Iraq's interim government, which detailed a meeting between Mohamed Atta, one of the 11 September hijackers, and Iraqi intelligence at the time of Saddam Hussein. The memo was supposedly written by Iraqi security chief General Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti to the president of Iraq. The report was subsequently challenged with American officials also reiterating that there was no such link.
Coughlin alleged that the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has negotiated a deal with Iran for Tehran to make a $25 million contribution to the campaign funds of Turkey's ruling party.
Immediately after the publication of the article, Turkish Government refuted all allegations and asked the newspaper to remove Coughlin's article from its website. Justice and Development Party also demanded an apology for publishing what it called an article without any sources but with many lies in it.
The Daily Telegraph lost the libel lawsuit Erdoğan filed in UK. As a result, he won "a substantial sum" in libel damages and an apology was published by the newspaper.
Views on civil liberties of terrorist suspects
In April 2009, Coughlin wrote an article entitled "My advice to Obama: Don't pick a fight with Dick Cheney", which was published on the Telegraph's website. In the article, which followed claims that US forces had waterboarded an Al Qaeda suspect 183 times, Coughlin argued that: "There are always two sides to a story, even a deeply unpleasant one such as waterboarding an al-Qaeda suspect", before asking "what if, as Mr Cheney is now suggesting, these brutal interrogation methods actually produced information that saved lives by thwarting potential al-Qaeda attacks?". Coughlin suggested that the problem posed "an interesting ethical dilemma", namely: "Are interrogation methods like waterboarding justified if they save lives, or should we respect the detainees' human rights, thereby enabling the terror attacks to take place and claim innocent lives? I know which option I'd go for". Coughlin has persisted in writing articles supporting the use of torture, for example on 10 February 2010 "When the next bomb goes off in London, blame the judges".
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- Azadeh Moaveni "Most Fundamentalist", "New York Times", 7 May 2009
- Search page, Spectator website
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- Vikram Dodd "Profiles: Saif Gadafy vs Con Coughlin", The Guardian, 19 April 2002
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- "Paper apologises to Gaddafi's son". BBC. 18 April 2002. Retrieved 17 June 2007.
- Coughlin, Con. Terrorist behind September 11 strike was trained by Saddam The Daily Telegraph. 13 December 2003
- Coughlin, Con. Does this link Saddam to 9/11? The Daily Telegraph. 13 December 2003
- Isikoff, Michael; Mark Hosenball. "Dubious Link Between Atta and Saddam". MSNBC. Archived from the original on 26 June 2007. Retrieved 17 June 2007.
- Murdock, Deroy. On the Interrogation List Archived 17 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine. National Review. 15 December 2003
- Safire, William. From the 'Spider Hole' The New York Times. 15 December 2003
- Con Coughlin (14 September 2010). "Iran donates $25 million to Turkey's ruling party". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 14 September 2010.
- Erdogan wins damages for Iran claim
- Con Coughlin, "My advice to Obama: Don't pick a fight with Dick Cheney" Daily Telegraph blogs, April 21, 2009
- Con Coughlin, "When the next bomb goes off in London, blame the judges" Daily Telegraph blogs, February 10, 2010/