British P.M. drags opponents into hacking scandal
Published : Jul 21, 2011 - 18:26
Updated : Jul 21, 2011 - 18:26
LONDON (AP) ― Prime Minister David Cameron dragged his political foes into Britain’s phone-hacking scandal at a raucous session of Parliament, distancing himself from a former aide at the heart of the allegations and denying his staff tried to thwart police investigations.

Cameron, who flew back from Africa early for Wednesday’s emergency session, defended his decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief, saying Coulson’s work in government had been untarnished.

Coulson was arrested this month in connection with allegations that reporters at the tabloid intercepted voice mails of celebrities and crime victims to get scoops. Cameron reminded lawmakers that Coulson has yet to be found guilty of anything. But the prime minister also made his strongest effort yet to distance himself from his former aide.

“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 told lawmakers who packed the House of Commons. “You live and you learn, and believe you me, I have learnt.”

Cameron then turned the spotlight on the Labour Party, saying that most British politicians had tried to court media baron Rupert Murdoch ― whose News Corp. owned the defunct News of the World and still owns three other British newspapers.

The prime minister warned that Labour should be careful before casting stones about hiring choices.

Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications director, Alastair Campbell, was accused of exaggerating government documents in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and the party’s former special adviser Damian McBride quit amid allegations he circulated scurrilous rumors about political opponents.

“You’ve still got Tom Baldwin working in your office!” Cameron exclaimed, referring to Labour’s political strategist who has been accused of illegally obtaining private banking information in 1999 while working as a journalist for The Times, another Murdoch paper. Baldwin could not be reached for comment.

Labour was in power when the phone hacking scandal broke in 2005 over a News of the World story about Prince William’s knee injury ― information that royal household staff believed could have only come from illegal voicemail intercepts. The scandal has since embroiled top politicians, police and journalists.

A parliamentary committee investigating the widening scandal released a scathing report on Wednesday accusing Murdoch companies of “deliberately trying to thwart a criminal investigation” into the allegations and lambasting the London Metropolitan police for its failed inquiry.

“We deplore the response of News International to the original investigation into hacking,” said the Home Affairs committee, which has been grilling police officials about their decision not to reopen the hacking investigation in 2009 when other allegations came to light.

And it seems more is yet to come.

Only some 200 of the nearly 4,000 people whose information is believed to have been targeted have been notified by police, and detectives have started a separate inquiry into whether other news organizations over the years have breached data privacy laws.

Scotland Yard said Wednesday it was increasing the number of staff assigned to the phone-hacking inquiry from 45 to 60 to deal with a surge of inquiries and requests for assistance from the public and lawyers.

Among the evidence police want to examine are emails and other documents from an internal investigation into hacking conducted in 2007 by a law firm hired by News International, the British newspaper division of Murdoch’s global News Corp. The firm, Harbottle and Lewis, had maintained client confidentiality meant it could not hand over the file.

On Wednesday, News International said it instructed Harbottle and Lewis to answer questions from police and lawmakers.

Murdoch flew out of London on Wednesday, a day after he and his son James were quizzed for three hours by a parliamentary committee investigating wrongdoing by the News of the World.

The embattled mogul got some good news when a billionaire Saudi prince who controls the biggest share of News Corp. outside the Murdoch family voiced his support.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal commended Rupert and James Murdoch for tackling problems at the company and for cooperating with investigators. Alwaleed, who controls 7 percent of News Corp., said the company remains “a valuable and long term investment.”