July 20 (Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron used an emergency session of Parliament to defend his record on dealings with Rupert Murdoch, saying that with hindsight it was a mistake to hire ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson.
Coulson resigned from the News Corp. newspaper at the start of 2007 after one of his reporters was jailed for phone-hacking. He denied any knowledge of illegality and Cameron hired him a few months later as communications chief. Coulson quit that job in January of this year and was arrested July 8.
“If it turns out I’ve been lied to, that will be a moment for a profound apology, and in that moment, I can assure you I will not fall short,” Cameron told lawmakers at the start of a daylong House of Commons debate in London today on the phone-hacking crisis. “With 20-20 hindsight and all that has followed I would not have offered him the job and I expect he would not have taken it.”
The revelations of widespread phone-hacking at the News of the World have led to a scandal that has shuttered the newspaper, led to 10 arrests, caused two senior policemen to resign and engulfed the political arena. Cameron, who’s set up a judicial inquiry following the affair, cut short a visit to Africa this week and ordered that Parliament sit for an extra day to allow his statement.
Murdoch, the 80-year-old chairman of News Corp., made his own apology to a panel of lawmakers yesterday, denying any knowledge of phone-hacking and payments to police, and blaming “people I trusted” during three hours of questioning that was interrupted by a protester attacking him with a foam pie. He made some comments that Cameron highlighted today, including the statement he had been closer to the last prime minister, Gordon Brown.
Asked about his relationship with former News International Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks, Cameron referred to her visits to Brown’s country residence. “I’ve never held a slumber party or seen her in her pajamas,” he said.
“You don’t make decisions in hindsight; you make them in the present,” the prime minister said of his decision to hire Coulson. “You live and you learn and believe me I have learned.”
Cameron has “bought himself some breathing space -- and a little more distance from Andy Coulson,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at the University of Sussex and author of “The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron,” said in an interview. “It’s not sorted but it’ll probably do for now. My sense is people are tiring slightly of the whole thing.”
Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said Cameron had made every effort not to hear warnings about Coulson. He pointed to newspaper stories in the Guardian and the New York Times in 2009 and 2010 that suggested hacking had been widespread at the News of the World and that Coulson had instructed reporters to do it.
“This cannot be put down to incompetence, it was a deliberate attempt to hide from the facts about Mr. Coulson,” Miliband said in reply to Cameron’s statement. “He was warned and he chose to ignore the warnings.”
Miliband told Cameron that “these questions are not going to go away,” even though Parliament won’t meet again until Sept. 5.
Cameron said that if Coulson’s denials turn out to be untrue, he will face prosecution. “If it turns out he has lied, he will have lied to a select committee, he will have lied to the police, he will have lied to a court and he will have lied to me,” he said.
The timing of the scandal has been bad for Cameron, who was in Afghanistan when the Guardian reported the News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002, and on a plane to South Africa when Paul Stephenson, the country’s most senior policeman, resigned.
Several times during his statement and the subsequent questioning, Cameron reminded lawmakers that “people do want us to get on with other issues,” including bringing growth back to the economy. He said the hacking scandal had to be dealt with. “Until we do so, it will not be possible to get on with the issues they care about even more.”
In an effort to deal with what he called a “firestorm,” Cameron announced a judicial inquiry last week into the media, its behavior, and its links with the police and politicians.
He gave more details of that inquiry today, saying that Judge Brian Leveson will be joined by six other panel members, including Shami Chakrabarti, Britain’s leading civil-liberties campaigner.
The other members are Paul Scott-Lee, the former chief constable of the West Midlands Police, David Currie, the former chairman of media regulator Ofcom, journalists Elinor Goodman and George Jones and former Financial Times Chairman David Bell. It will look at print, broadcast, online and social media.
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