- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister David Cameron dragged his political foes into Britain’s phone-hacking scandal Wednesday as he sought to distance himself from a former aide at the heart of the allegations and denied that his staff had tried to thwart police investigations.

Mr. Cameron, who flew back from Africa early to address an emergency session of Parliament, defended his decision to hire former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief, saying his work in government had been untarnished.

Mr. Coulson was arrested this month in connection with the tabloid’s alleged practice of intercepting the voice mails of celebrities and crime victims to get scoops. Mr. Cameron reminded lawmakers Wednesday that he has yet to be found guilty of anything.

But the prime minister also sought to put some distance between himself and Mr. Coulson.

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

Mr. Cameron then dragged Labor Party officials into the spotlight, saying that most British politicians had tried to court media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owned the now-defunct News of the World and several other British newspapers.

The prime minister added that Labor should be careful before casting stones about hiring choices. Labor’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was accused of exaggerating government documents in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and the party’s former special adviser, Damien McBride, quit amid allegations he circulated scurrilous rumors about political opponents.

“You’ve still got Tom Baldwin working in your office!” Mr. Cameron exclaimed, referring to Labor’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. Mr. Baldwin could not immediately be reached for comment.

Labor 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 come only from illegal voice-mail intercepts. The scandal has since embroiled top politicians, police and journalists in Britain.

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 also said Wednesday that it was increasing the number of staff assigned to the phone-hacking inquiry to meet a “significant increase in the workload” because of a surge of inquiries and requests for assistance from the public and lawyers.

Already 10 people have been arrested, including Mr. Coulson, who was editor at the News of the World when royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested and jailed in 2007 in connection with the Prince William story.

Police dropped their investigation into the hacking claims in 2007 once the men were prosecuted, and Mr. Coulson quit the paper shortly after. It was then that Mr. Cameron, who was Conservative opposition leader at the time, hired him as his communications chief.

Police reopened the hacking investigation in January when allegations of arose that the newspaper had intercepted — and deleted — the voice-mail messages of a 13-year-old who was kidnapped and later murdered.

Since its revival, the scandal has exploded, forcing Mr. Murdoch to shut the 168-year-old News of the World and abandon a bid to take total control of British Sky Broadcasting, raising questions of whether police accepted bribes to give reporters’ tips and highlighting the way politicians sought to curry favor with the News Corp. media empire.

A judge, meanwhile, on Wednesday awarded actor Hugh Grant — one of the most prominent celebrity critics of the Murdoch empire — the right to see whether he was one of the targeted celebrities. Others who allegedly had phones hacked included Sienna Miller and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Mr. Cameron said a special panel would be set up to investigate practices at other news organizations and the relationship among media organizations, politicians and police.

“The problem has been taking place over many years — the problem is for both our main parties, and the problem is one the public expect us to stop playing with and to rise to the occasion and deal with it for the good of the country,” Mr. Cameron said.

He adamantly denied, however, that anyone on his staff ever tried to influence the police-hacking 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.

But he did admit to meeting with News Corp. executives more than two dozen times from May 2010 to this month — meetings that were criticized in Parliament by Labor leader Ed Miliband, who said Mr. Cameron had made a “catastrophic error of judgment” in hiring Mr. Coulson.

Mr. Miliband also reminded Mr. Cameron that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had warned the prime minister against bringing Mr. Coulson into Downing Street. Mr. Clegg sat stone-faced during much of Wednesday’s raucous session.

News Corp. announced Wednesday that it had stopped legal payments to Mr. Mulcaire — a day after Mr. Murdoch told lawmakers in a special parliamentary committee hearing that he would try to find a way to stop the payments. Mr. Mulcaire’s lawyer, Sarah Webb, declined to comment on the development.

The saga captivated audiences from America to Mr. Murdoch’s native Australia on Tuesday, as Mr. 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 cellphones 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.

Mr. Murdoch flew out of London on Wednesday, the same day that police charged Jonathan May-Bowles, 26, for trying to hit Mr. Murdoch with a foam pie at the U.K. hearing.

Buckingham Palace, meanwhile, reacted to a claim by one lawmaker that it had raised concerns with Mr. Cameron‘s office over his decision to hire Mr. Coulson. “It is outrageous to suggest this,” a palace spokesman said.

Also Wednesday, a House of Commons committee blasted both News International, the News Corp. unit that operates the British papers, and London’s 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 when other allegations were coming to light.

Cassandra Vinograd and Raphael Satter contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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