British PM drags opponents into hacking scandal

Thursday, July 21, 2011

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

Cameron, who flew back from Africa early to address the 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.

Coulson was arrested this month in connection with the tabloid's alleged practice of intercepting the voicemails of celebrities and crime victims to get scoops. 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 him and 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," 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."

Cameron then dragged Labour 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 still owns three other British newspapers.

The prime minister added that Labour should be careful before casting stones about hiring choices. Labour's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell was accused of exaggerating government documents in the lead-up of 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 immediately 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 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 said Wednesday that it was increasing the number of staff assigned to the phone-hacking inquiry from 45 to 60 to meet a "significant increase in the workload" due to a surge of inquiries and requests for assistance from the public and lawyers.

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