Questions remain over what British PM knew and when about phone hacking scandal

David Cameron admits he should not have hired former News of the World editor, but more questions persist over the prime minister’s links with News International.

LONDON // Britain's embattled prime minister attempted to justify his controversial role in the phone-hacking scandal when parliament met in emergency session yesterday.

But when the debate was over and MPs left for their summer break a day later than scheduled, many of the same questions remained over what David Cameron knew and when.

He did admit that "with hindsight" he should not have hired Andy Coulson, one of the people at the centre of the scandal, as director of communications in 2007.

Just months before, Mr Coulson had stepped down as editor of the News of the World after the tabloid's royal reporter and a private investigator had been jailed for hacking the voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff. Mr Coulson has always maintained he knew nothing about it, despite others' claims to the contrary.

But more questions persisted over the prime minister's role. Opposition Labour MPs pressed him on what discussions he had had with News Corp executives over the proposed takeover of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB - which Rupert Murdoch dropped last week - in the 26 private meetings he had held with senior staff from the company since he came to office 15 months ago.

Mr Cameron did not directly answer the questions, saying only that he had removed himself from any part of the government decision-making process on whether to approve the takeover.

He insisted that he had never had "inappropriate conversations" with News Corp executives about the bid to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB that the company does not already own.

Mr Cameron was also pressed on whether Neil Wallis, the deputy editor at the News of the World during Mr Coulson's tenure, had given advice to the Conservative Party in the run-up to last year's general election.

The prime minister would say only that Mr Wallis - who, like Mr Coulson, has been arrested in connection with the scandal over the past two weeks - had not been hired or paid any money by the Conservatives.

But it was Mr Coulson, who resigned as Downing Street director of communications in January as fresh hacking allegations emerged, who commanded centre stage for much of the exchanges.

The Labour leader Ed Miliband described the appointment as a "catastrophic error of judgment" and other MPs tried to elicit from Mr Cameron what warnings he had received from other people - including, apparently, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who is now deputy prime minister in the coalition - about the advisability of appointing Mr Coulson.

Mr Cameron, who has never apologised for hiring his friend, came close to doing so when he told MPs: "People will, of course, make judgments about it. Of course, I regret and I am extremely sorry for the furore it has caused.

"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.

"But you don't make decisions in hindsight, you make them in the present. You live and you learn and, believe you me, I have learnt."

Mr Miliband reflected on the fact that the scandal had enraged public opinion only since it emerged that the voicemail of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked.

He told the theCommons: "This issue does not directly concern our jobs and living standards but it does concern something incredibly important on which all else depends - and that is the fabric of our country.

"We do not want to live in a country where the depraved deletion of the voicemail of a dead teenager is seen as acceptable."

In other developments yesterday:

- The Commons home affairs committee has been looking at the police handling of the scandal, and accused Scotland Yard of "a catalogue of failures" in its investigation at the News of the World.

- A report from the committee also accused News International, the parent company of Murdoch newspapers in the UK, of "deliberate attempts to thwart the various investigations" but said there was no "real will" on the part of the police to overcome this.

- John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, ordered an investigation into security failures that allowed a protester to throw a plate of shaving foam at Rupert Murdoch as he gave evidence to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday. Jonathan May-Bowles, 26, an activist and comedian whose stage name is Jonnie Marbles, will appear in court on July 29 charged with behaviour causing harassment, alarm or distress in a public place.

- News International announced it was to stop paying "with immediate effect" the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator jailed in 2007 when the phone-hacking scandal first emerged.

- James Murdoch, head of News Corp's European and Asian interests, admitted on Tuesday that the company had continued to pay the legal fees of Mulcaire, who faces further court action over the hacking.

- Actor Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan, his former girlfriend, won an order from a High Court judge, forcing police to disclose information relating to the alleged hacking of their voicemail messages.

Published: July 21, 2011 04:00 AM


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