British PM regrets hiring ex-Murdoch man

2011-07-20 19:08

London - Prime Minister David Cameron made a public admission of regret over Britain's phone-hacking scandal on Wednesday, saying with hindsight he would not have hired a former tabloid editor as his media chief.

In a stormy emergency session of parliament, Cameron defended his original decision to employ ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who quit Downing Street in January and was arrested this month over the scandal at the paper, since shut by Rupert Murdoch.

But a day after cutting short a trip to Africa to confront the crisis, the under-pressure Conservative leader conceded he would not have employed Coulson had he been able to predict the furore of recent weeks.

"With 20-20 hindsight and all that has followed, I would not have offered him the job and I expect that he wouldn't have taken it," Cameron said, raising his voice over heckling from opposition lawmakers in the House of Commons.

"You live and you learn and believe you me, I have learned."

Cameron refused to cut Coulson loose, however, telling lawmakers: "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."

Opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband demanded a full apology from Cameron, accusing him of ignoring repeated reports and warnings over Coulson.

"It was a deliberate attempt to hide from the facts about Mr Coulson," Miliband said.

Not in pyjamas

A day after Murdoch gave testimony to British lawmakers over the scandal on what he described as "the most humble day of my life", it was Cameron's turn to take the heat over the controversy.

Cameron has come under intense pressure over hiring of Coulson shortly after the journalist quit as editor of the News of the World in 2007 when the paper's royal editor and a private investigator were jailed for hacking.

Coulson has always denied wrongdoing.

Cameron on Wednesday admitted that another arrested former executive from the paper, Neil Wallis, may have advised Coulson before last year's general election but said his Conservative party had not paid him.

The scandal has torn through Australian-born Murdoch's News Corp empire, which owned the News of the World, leading to the resignation of two of his top aides, Rebekah Brooks - a friend of Cameron - and Les Hinton.

It had dogged the Murdoch empire for years but exploded into a full-blown crisis this month after claims an investigator working for the News of the World hacked into the phones of a murdered teenager and relatives of dead servicemen.

Addressing lawmakers, Cameron sought to play down his friendship with Brooks, who until last week was chief executive of News International, the mogul's British newspaper arm, amid reports the pair regularly saw each other.

"I have never held a slumber party or seen her in her pyjamas," he said, in reference to reports that former Labour premier Gordon Brown's wife Sarah hosted a get together in 2008 for influential media women, including Brooks.

Humble pie

The premier defended his conduct over Murdoch's bid to take full control of pay-TV giant BSkyB, which the mogul was forced to abandon due to the hacking scandal.

Cameron said he had no "inappropriate conversations" with Murdoch aides over the bid.

Parliament speaker John Bercow meanwhile announced an inquiry into how a protester was able to splatter Murdoch with a foam pie at Tuesday's parliamentary hearing.

The Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper praised his "plucky" Chinese-born wife Wendi Deng for hitting his alleged assailant. Several other British newspapers splashed headlines about Murdoch eating "humble pie".

China's huge online community also hailed the "Tiger mother" for her actions.

Police on Wednesday charged Jonathan May-Bowles, 26, over the attack.

After ensnaring politicians, the police and media, Britain's royal family were caught up in the phone-hacking scandal when Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant claimed that senior royal staff had been "troubled" by Coulson's apppointment.

A Buckingham Palace spokesperson described the claim as "outrageous". Downing Street called it "rubbish".

Earlier on Wednesday lawmakers released a report which was highly critical of attempts by Murdoch's News International to "thwart" phone-hacking investigations and blasted a "catalogue of failures" by police.

Despite mounting evidence after the original police probe that the practice was more widespread, Scotland Yard did not reopen it until January, discovering that nearly 4 000 people may have been targeted.