With forceful speech, mild contrition, and adroit argument on the floor of the Parliament today, British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to calm the swirling phone-hacking scandal that had members of Parliament recently calling for his resignation.
Mr. Cameron, who recalled Parliament in the scandal's heavy wake, became entangled in the affair due to his close ties with Rupert Murdoch, the News Corp. chairman whose News of the World (NotW) tabloid was shuttered after it was revealed the paper illegally intercepted the voice mail of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler and was involved in hacking into the phones of celebrities, royalty, and ordinary Brits whose personal tragedies became tabloid fodder.
Cameron is also a close friend of Rebekah Brooks, who recently resigned as CEO of Mr. Murdoch's British newspaper arm. She once edited NotW, and hired another former NotW editor, Andy Coulson, as a key adviser. Both Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson have been arrested in connection with the phone hacking inquiry that has seen the resignations of New Corp. executives and British police officials over allegations of police payoffs and coverups.
"In hindsight," said Cameron, I “would not have hired” former media chief Coulson. If Coulson lied to him, he would face “severe criminal charges," Cameron said.
With “Murdochgate” so dominating public thinking in Britain, and Murdoch's testimony to Parliament yesterday watched in pubs and offices around the country, Cameron cut short a trip to Africa to return home and have the last word on the scandal before official Britain goes on summer holiday.
At the heart of the attack on Cameron by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband is the extend of the influence that Murdoch enjoyed within the highest levels of the Cameron government, and whether the prime minister acted inappropriately to cover up any wrongdoing by his former aide Coulson.
Cameron today went partway down the path of contrition by further distancing himself from Coulson, also a personal friend. But the prime minister gave the impression that he simply fumbled administratively in hiring Coulson.
Mr. Miliband seized on this explanation by saying that recent evidence shows it was "not gross incompetence but a deliberate attempt to hide the facts about Mr. Coulson” that led to his hiring. Miliband said Cameron made “every effort not to hear the facts about Coulson,” and called Cameron’s statements today a “half-apology.”
Cameron stressed that Parliament should let the "full judicial inquiry," which he instituted earlier, begin to probe and answer questions of ethical violations by the press, politicians' involvement, and police corruption that have come to roost in Westminster in recent days.
"You live as you learn, and believe me that I have learned," Cameron said.
With the exposure of corruption and criminality among politicians, media, and police, analysts are asking how far the scandal can go and how damaging it may be.
“Can this scandal go away?” is the question asked by 10 Downing Street, say political consultants here. In a recent Sky News straw poll, 50 percent of Brits say their view of the prime minister has fallen in recent days.
Cameron appeared comfortable and voluble today in dealing with questions today in Parliament. He maintains that his staff acted "entirely properly" in not accepting information on Coulson from police investigations about his knowledge and involvement in the NotW phone hacking.
“He [Cameron] needs to explain why he hired Andy Coulson and say to the country, ‘I messed up,' " says one consultant who asked not to be named because he isn't authorized to speak to the press. “I think the best way to kill this scandal is to create 15 committees or as many inquiries as possible to look into it."
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