POSTED: 04:01 a.m. HST, Jul 20, 2011
LONDON » Prime Minister David Cameron emphatically denied claims that his staff tried to stop an inquiry into phone hacking at the News of the World and defended his decision to hire one of the tabloid's editors as his communications chief.
In a raucous emergency session Wednesday in Parliament, Cameron did admit that both the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour parties had failed to pursue key developments in the hacking case and had actively courted media baron Rupert Murdoch.
"The clock has stopped on my watch and we need to sort it out," Cameron told lawmakers, promising that a government inquiry would examine the cozy relationship between British politicians and media and investigate whether other news organizations may have broken the law.
Police are also probing whether other news media breached privacy laws.
Cameron cut short his Africa trip to appear before the House of Commons, which delayed its summer break to debate issues engulfing Britain's political and media elite and Murdoch's global communications empire, News Corp.
Murdoch owned the troubled News of the World, where the hacking claims first emerged in 2005, when the royal alerted police that the tabloid may have learned about Prince William's knee injury by illegally intercepting phone messages.
Cameron's former communications chief Andy Coulson — a former editor at the tabloid — is among 10 people who have been arrested in the scandal. One has been cleared.
Lawmakers want to know why Cameron insisted on hiring Coulson despite warnings and how much the prime minister knew about the phone hacking investigation. Some have alleged that some people on Cameron's staff may have met with police in an attempt to pressure them to drop the investigation.
"To risk any perception that No 10 (Downing Street) was seeking to influence a sensitive police investigation in any way would have been completely wrong," he said.
Cameron did, however, meet with News Corp. executives more than two dozen times from May 2010 to this month — meetings that were criticized in Parliament by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who said Cameron made a "catastrophic error of judgment" in hiring Coulson.
Coulson was an editor at News of the World when royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested and jailed for phone hacking. It was then that the original police inquiry into phone hacking was dropped and Coulson quit the paper. Cameron — then opposition leader — then hired him.
This January, police reopened the hacking investigation and are now investigating some 3,870 people whose names and telephone numbers were found in News of the World files. It remains unclear how many of them were hacking victims. Coulson resigned his post at Downing Street in the same month.
News Corp. said Wednesday it had now eliminated legal payments to Mulcaire — a day after Murdoch told lawmakers in a special parliamentary committee hearing that he would try to find a way to stop the payments. Mulcaire's lawyer, Sarah Webb, declined to comment on the development.
A judge Wednesday awarded "Notting Hill" actor Hugh Grant — one of the most prominent celebrity critics of the Murdoch empire — the right to see whether he was one of the tabloid hacking victims.
The scandal captivated television audiences from America to Murdoch's native Australia on Tuesday, as Murdoch endured a three-hour grilling by U.K. lawmakers. The media baron said he had known nothing of allegations that staff at News of the World hacked into cell phones and bribed police to get information on celebrities, politicians and crime victims.
He also said he had been humbled by the allegations and apologized for the "horrible invasions" of privacy.
Politicians from both the Conservative Party and Labour Party have been tainted by the scandal.
During the emergency session Wednesday, Miliband reminded Cameron that his own Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg — part of Britain's coalition government — warned Cameron against bringing Coulson into Downing Street last year as communications chief.
Clegg sat stone-faced during much of Wednesday's rowdy session.
Cameron later countered, saying that the Labour Party was also guilty of hiring questionable characters, including Miliband's current strategist, Tom Baldwin, another former Murdoch journalist from a different paper.
Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft, a Belize-based billionaire who has funded the party for more than a decade, has accused Baldwin of trying to get private banking information in 1999.
Cameron defended Coulson's work and said if it emerged that Coulson had lied to him about his role in the hacking case he would take it seriously.
"Andy Coulson is innocent until proven guilty," Cameron said.
Britain's Conservative Party announced Tuesday it had just learned that another recently arrested phone-hacking suspect, former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis, may have advised Coulson before the 2010 national election that put Cameron into power. It said Wallis was not paid for the advice, however.
Cameron also said the hacking affair raises questions over the ethics and values of London's police force and vowed Wednesday that he would bring in new leadership to the force. Two top police resigned this week over their close ties to Wallis.
Meanwhile, a House of Commons committee on Wednesday blasted both News International, the News Corp. unit that operates the British papers, and London Metropolitan Police for their performance on the scandal.
"We deplore the response of News International to the original investigation into hacking. It is almost impossible to escape the conclusion ... that they were deliberately trying to thwart a criminal investigation," said the Home Affairs committee, which has been grilling past and present Metropolitan Police officials about their decision not to reopen the hacking investigation in 2009.
Cassandra Vinograd, Danica Kirka, Meera Selva and Robert Barr contributed to this report from London.