Cameron 'regrets' hiring scandal-hit tabloid editor

British PM says would apologize if ex-spokesman has lied; says he regrets uproar caused by links to scandal.

By REUTERS
July 20, 2011 16:29
2 minute read.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron

David Cameron 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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LONDON - 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 apologize, he said Andy Coulson, his former spokesman 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.

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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."

Cameron said, 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.

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The scandal has forced the resignations of senior executives at News Corp and two of Britain's top policemen as well as fueling opposition attacks on Cameron's judgment.

It has included allegations of hacking into a murdered schoolgirl's voicemail and the phones of British troops killed in combat.

A few hours before Cameron faced legislators, a cross-party parliamentary committee published a report criticizing both News International, the British arm of News Corp, and the police over the phone-hacking investigation.

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 labor unions threatening mass strikes.

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