British Prime Minister David Cameron, defending his integrity in an emergency debate in Parliament on Wednesday, said he regretted the uproar caused by his hiring of a former newspaper editor at the heart of a phone-hacking scandal.
Under pressure from opponents to apologise, he said Andy Coulson, his former spokesperson who once edited Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, had denied knowing of phone-hacking by the paper. But should Coulson turn out to have lied, the prime minister said he would then offer an apology.
Beleaguered but not seen under serious threat of being dumped by his party after less than 15 months in office, Cameron defended his actions and those of his staff in dealings with the police and Murdoch’s News Corp media empire.
But the 44-year-old Conservative premier said after his toughest two weeks in power: “You don’t make decisions in hindsight; you make them in the present. You live and you learn — and believe you me, I have learnt.”
Cameron, who cut short a tour of Africa as Parliament delayed its summer recess to quiz him, said in his opening statement: “I have an old-fashioned view about innocent until proven guilty. But if it turns out I have been lied to, that would be a moment for a profound apology. And, in that event, I can tell you I will not fall short.”
Labour’s Ed Miliband, whose muted first year as opposition leader has been given a boost by his assault on Cameron over the scandal, calling the hiring of Coulson a “catastrophic error of judgment”.
“Why doesn’t he do more than give a half-apology and provide the full apology now for hiring Mr Coulson and bringing him into the heart of Downing Street?” Miliband asked.
Cameron resisted, with a note of regret: “On the decision to hire him … it was my decision … Of course I regret and I am extremely sorry about the furore it has caused. With 20:20 hindsight … I would not have offered him the job.”
It would, he went on under questioning later, be a matter of “disgrace” for the government if Coulson, appointed by the Conservative party in opposition in 2007 and brought into the prime minister’s office after the May 2010 election, had been lying about not knowing of criminal practices at his newspaper.
A day after Murdoch denied his own responsibility for the affair, Cameron gave details of final arrangements for a judicial inquiry into the scandal and the wider issues it has raised over unhealthy relationships among Britain’s press, police and political establishment.
He also tried to move the political agenda away from the scandal, saying voters wanted his government to concentrate on handling an economic crisis and other pressing matters.
The scandal has forced the resignations of senior executives at News Corp and two of Britain’s top policemen as well as fuelling opposition attacks on Cameron’s judgment.
The 80-year-old Murdoch was attacked by a protester with a foam pie when he appeared before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday and made a “humble” apology for the scandal, but he refused to resign. He said staff who “betrayed” him were at fault.
He later sent a message to his staff that his company was taking steps to ensure that “serious problems never happen again”.
“Those who have betrayed our trust must be held accountable under the law,” he added in an email sent late on Tuesday.
Analysts said Murdoch’s televised apology had put the spotlight on Cameron. The scandal has included allegations of hacking into a murdered schoolgirl’s voicemail and the phones of British troops killed in combat.
An opinion poll by Reuters/Ipsos MORI showed Britons’ satisfaction with Cameron had fallen to its lowest level since he entered office in May last year. Only 38% were happy with the way he was doing his job.
A few hours before Cameron faced legislators, a cross-party parliamentary committee published a report criticising both News International, the British arm of News Corp, and the police over the phone-hacking investigation.
“There has been a catalogue of failures by the Metropolitan Police, and deliberate attempts by News International to thwart the various investigations,” said Keith Vaz, the chairperson of the Home Affairs committee.
Media Minister Jeremy Hunt said News International needed to explain how malpractice happened without Murdoch or his son James, a top News Corp executive, being told. They shut down the 168-year-old News of the World this month and pulled out of a bid to buy out other investors in pay-TV network BSkyB.
The scandal is unlikely to bring down Cameron, in office for less than 15 months, but could make it harder for him to manage a Conservative-led coalition that is focused on quick deficit reduction through austerity measures, which have labour unions threatening mass strikes.
“The Murdochs can say they apologised unreservedly, they faced the music,[and] they endured a personal physical attack,” said Andrew Hawkins of polling company Comres.
“It puts the attention firmly back on the political ramifications and, in particular, David Cameron and his judgment over the whole Andy Coulson issue.”
Miliband has already put pressure on Cameron over Coulson, who resigned from the News of the World but denied any wrongdoing after two people employed by the newspaper were jailed for phone-hacking in 2007.
Opposition leader Cameron appointed Coulson as his communications chief that year and kept him on when he became prime minister in May 2010. He has said he gave Coulson the job because there was no evidence of his involvement in hacking.
Coulson quit his government role in January days before police launched a new investigation.
One Labour lawmaker accused Cameron, or at least his advisers, of ignoring concerns raised over Coulson’s appointment by aides to Queen Elizabeth II, whose grandsons William and Harry were the targets of the hacking incident for which the News of the World‘s royal correspondent was jailed four years ago.
A spokesperson for Cameron denied the allegation.
Commentators were divided between those who felt both Murdochs acquitted themselves well on Tuesday and others who felt the elder looked out of touch, even “a broken man”.
Shares in News Corp rose over 5.5% in New York on Tuesday, recovering some of their previous losses.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Wednesday the local arm of News Corp would have to answer “hard questions” after the phone-hacking in Britain.
Police say they are probing the hacking of messages of possibly 4 000 people.
Asked if he felt he should resign, Murdoch said: “No. I feel that people I trusted, I’m not saying who, I don’t know on what level, have let me down and I think they behaved disgracefully, betrayed the company and me and it’s for them to pay.” – Reuters