British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to distance himself from the resignation of the country’s most senior policeman on Monday, saying the London force’s role in the phone-hacking scandal was quite different from that of the government.
Paul Stephenson quit as head of the Metropolitan Police on Sunday over his links to Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, the News of the World. The London police force had hired Wallis as a public relations consultant.
Cameron hired one of the newspaper’s former editors, Andy Coulson, as his communications chief after he resigned in 2007 over the hacking of phones of members of the royal family.
Asked at a news conference in Pretoria to explain the difference between Stephenson hiring Wallis and the prime minister hiring Coulson, Cameron said: “I don’t believe the two situations are the same in any shape or form.
“There is a contrast with the situation at the Metropolitan Police, where clearly the issues have been around whether or not the investigation is being pursued properly.
“In terms of Andy Coulson, no one has argued that the work he did in government in any way was inappropriate or bad. He worked well in government, he then left government.”
Coulson left his job as Cameron’s media chief in January, raising questions about the prime minister’s judgment in hiring him in the first place.
Cameron also defended his decision to travel to Africa on a trade mission, despite the growing row at home over hacking and illegal payments to police.
“Just because you are travelling to Africa doesn’t mean you suddenly lose contact with your office,” he said.
“I have had discussions with my own office, but also clearly with the home secretary to make sure that not only the Metropolitan Police Service does not miss a beat in this vital work, but the government is pressing ahead on all the fronts that it needs to,” he added.
Cameron said he may call an emergency session of Parliament on Wednesday, the day after Rupert Murdoch, his son James and close aide Rebekah Brooks are due to appear before a parliamentary committee.
Cameron was told about the resignation of Stephenson just over an hour after taking off from London on Sunday for a two-day trip to South Africa and Nigeria, aides said.
He has already shortened the visit, his first to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office in May 2010, because of the phone hacking crisis. It was due to last five days and take in the new state of South Sudan as well as Rwanda.
“A big part of [his job] is boosting the British economy and making trade links, and that’s the purpose of this trip. The prime minister needs to continue doing that,” a spokesperson told reporters travelling with Cameron.
Cameron is scheduled to hold talks with President Jacob Zuma as well as Desmond Tutu.
African free trade area
He admitted the issue of an African free trade area, negotiations on which were launched by 26 states last month, was not as headline-grabbing as aid concerts such as Live Aid, but argued it could be far more powerful.
“In the past, there were marches in the West to drop the debt. There were concerts to increase aid. And it was right that the world responded,” Cameron wrote in Business Day on Monday.
“But they have never once had a march or a concert to call for what will in the long term save far more lives and do far more good — an African free trade area.”
Cameron argued that a free trade area could increase gross domestic product across the continent by an estimated $62-billion a year — $20-million more than the world gives sub-Saharan Africa in aid.
African leaders agreed in South Africa last month to launch negotiations on creating the zone that would include 26 countries with a combined economy estimated at $875-billion.
Cameron is accompanied on his trip by a delegation of 25 business leaders, from the chief executive of Barclays bank, Bob Diamond, to the director of communications and public policy of the English Premier League, Bill Bush.
However, commentators at home are questioning the timing of his trip.
The phone hacking scandal led to the arrest Sunday of Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World, and the shock resignation of Stephenson.
In a statement issued by his office late on Sunday, Cameron described Stephenson’s departure as “a very sad occasion for him”, adding: “I wish him well for the future.”
Brooks resigned as chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International newspaper division on Friday, although she denies wrongdoing.
Cameron is friends with Brooks, and has also come under fire for his decision to employ her successor as editor, Andy Coulson, as his media chief until January. Coulson was also arrested earlier this month over hacking. – Reuters