U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron cut even more time off a trip to Africa to deal with the deepening phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. after two senior police officers resigned.
Cameron will return to London from Nigeria tomorrow night rather than the following morning so he can prepare for a statement to Parliament on July 20, his spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters in Johannesburg today. Murdoch, his son James and former News International Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks give evidence to lawmakers tomorrow about wrongdoing at the now defunct News of the World newspaper.
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates followed the head of the force, Paul Stephenson, in resigning today. The prime minister was again forced to defend his decision to hire Andy Coulson, the former editor of News Corp.’s News of the World newspaper, as his communications chief. Coulson, who quit that job in January this year, was arrested 10 days ago as police widened the phone-hacking probe.
“The situation in the police service is really quite different from the situation in government,” Cameron told reporters in Pretoria at a joint press conference with South African President Jacob Zuma today. “The issues around them have had a marked bearing on public confidence into the police inquiry and indeed the police themselves.”
Parliament’s summer vacation is being delayed by a day so lawmakers can discuss the phone-hacking crisis. Cameron’s Africa trip, which started yesterday, had already been cut to two days from four.
“We were able to rearrange our visits and can do most of the things we were planning to do,” Field said. “He will go back and prepare the statement to Parliament the following morning.”
Cameron canceled a trip to a power station scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. He will meet Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, make a speech and visit a vaccination clinic.
Stephenson quit yesterday as head of the London police, citing “accusations” about his force’s decision to hire Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of the News of the World who was arrested last week, to give public-relations advice.
In a statement, Stephenson raised the question of why it was wrong for him to have worked with Wallis, yet right for Cameron to have hired Coulson, Wallis’s former boss, as his head of communications.
Praise for Coulson
The prime minister said there were no questions about the work Coulson had done for him between 2007 and this year. Coulson resigned from the News of the World at the start of 2007 after one of his reporters was jailed for phone-hacking following an initial police probe. He has always denied any knowledge of illegal activities at the paper.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Cameron should “absolutely not” consider resigning over his appointment of Coulson.
“I don’t think that this is about the prime minister’s position,” Clegg told reporters in London today.
Since the July 4 revelation that reporters working for the News of the World hacked the mobile phone of a murdered schoolgirl and deleted messages, what Cameron called a “firestorm” has swept through the British media, the political world and the police.
In two weeks, the scandal has forced Murdoch to shut down the News of the World and abandon his bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc and has led to the resignations of Brooks, another former News of the World editor, and Les Hinton, CEO of Dow Jones and previously chairman of News International for 12 years.
Brooks was questioned by police for nine hours yesterday, two days after she stepped down as head of the News International unit that publishes New York-based News Corp.’s U.K. titles. Police said in an e-mailed statement that her arrest was part of their probe into phone hacking and an investigation into whether officers were paid for information.
Brooks’s lawyer said today she will still appear before Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee tomorrow and is willing to answer questions.
“She’s not guilty of any criminal offense,” Stephen Parkinson told a televised news conference. Her arrest has caused “enormous reputational damage” and police will need to explain their reasoning as they put no allegations to her and showed her no documents connecting her to any crime, he said.
News Corp. dropped as much as 4.3 percent, or 67 cents, and was down 3.9 percent at $15.03 at 11:10 a.m. in New York after two people familiar with the matter said independent directors are questioning whether a leadership change is needed because of the phone-hacking scandal.
Stephenson put pressure back on Cameron in his resignation statement by saying he had been unable to advise the prime minister in advance that Wallis was going to be arrested, with the attendant bad publicity for the police, because of Cameron’s closeness to Coulson.
“I did not want to compromise the prime minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr. Coulson,” Stephenson said. He directly contrasted his force’s decision to hire Wallis in 2009 with Cameron’s decision to take on Coulson.
“Unlike Mr. Coulson, Mr. Wallis had not resigned from News of the World or, to the best of my knowledge been in any way associated with the original phone-hacking investigation,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson is the second successive head of the Metropolitan Police, Britain’s biggest force, to resign. His predecessor, Ian Blair, quit in October 2008 after failing to get the backing of London’s newly elected mayor, Boris Johnson. Blair had been criticized for his handling of the 2005 fatal shooting of an innocent Brazilian man suspected of planning a suicide attack.
Yates, the U.K.’s top anti-terrorism policeman, announced his resignation in a statement e-mailed today by the Metropolitan Police. It means the London force is losing two top officers a year before the capital hosts the Olympic Games.
Yates, who announced in 2009 there were no grounds for a further probe into phone-hacking, was criticized by lawmakers at a hearing last week and has been asked to appear before Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee again tomorrow alongside Stephenson.
Cameron told an audience at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange that when Parliament meets on July 20 he will “make a big statement updating what we’re doing around this judicial inquiry” into the police investigation into phone-hacking and media regulation.
“The relationship between politicians and the media hasn’t been right,” Cameron said. He said he was “making sure that Britain gets to the bottom of what has been a terrible episode in terms of what newspapers have done hacking into private data, and also some very big questions about potential police corruption, and we need to get to the bottom of those.”
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