Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament on Wednesday that, with hindsight, he would not have hired former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief if he had known more about his apparent involvement in phone hacking, but he stopped short of a full apology.
Labor leader Ed Milliband retorted that the prime minister had ignored repeated warnings about the risk of employing Mr. Coulson, had not removed him when more evidence emerged and had engaged in “a deliberate attempt to hide the facts” about Mr. Coulson.
Mr. Cameron’s appointment of a man who was arrested last week on suspicion of corruption has become a central issue in the phone-hacking scandal at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper. It is an issue that threatens to undermine his authority as prime minister.
“I can say with 20-20 hindsight, I would not have offered (Mr. Coulson) the job,” Mr. Cameron said amid jeering from Labour benches in the House of Commons. But he said decisions are not made with hindsight. “You live and learn and, believe you me, I have learned.”
He said if it proves that Mr. Coulson lied to him and to police and parliamentary committees, he would offer “a profound apology.” But repeatedly he said no one had raised any questions about Mr. Coulson’s performance as his communications chief, and he accused Labour of “petty political point scoring” on the issue.
In reply, Mr. Millaband said: “The prime minister was caught in a tragic conflict of loyalty. He made the wrong choice. He chose to stick with Mr. Coulson.”
He said the prime minister’s hindsight was “not good enough. It’s not about hindsight. It’s about all the information and warnings he ignored.”
Mr. Cameron, he said, should not stop at “a half apology” but should make a full apology now.
The prime minister, who cut short an Africa visit to answer questions before Parliament, said both Labour and his Conservatives have been too close to media moguls such as Mr. Murdoch, and maintained he has been more open about this than former Labor Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
He has admitted to having held 26 meetings with executives of Mr. Murdoch’s News International since his election just over a year ago.
But several times he appeared to evade a direct answer as to whether Mr. Murdoch’s bid for full ownership of British Sky Broadcasting came up at any of these meetings. He said the Cabinet secretary has ruled there was no breach of rules and “I never had one improper conversation.”
In another development, a British parliamentary committee charged that News International deliberately tried to thwart a criminal investigation into phone-hacking at the News of the World.
A Home Affairs Committee report also severely condemned the actions of senior London police officers involved in the investigation who failed to follow up on early indications of criminal activity.
“There has been a catalogue of failures by the Metropolitan Police, and deliberate attempts by News International to thwart the various investigations,” committee chairman Keith Vaz commented.
The report was issued one day after Rupert Murdoch and his son James testified for nearly three hours before another parliamentary committee, largely claiming ignorance of what went on at the News of the World and demonstrating a limited effort to arrive at the facts after the scandal broke.
News International, the British arm of the Murdoch media empire, originally sought to paint the phone hacking as the work of a single rogue reporter and an undercover private detective working with him. It has admitted a long delay in cooperating with a police investigation.
“We deplore the response of News International to the original investigation into hacking,” the committee report said. “It is almost impossible to escape the conclusion...that they were deliberately trying to thwart a criminal investigation.”
The committee said it was “astounded” at the length of time it took News International to begin cooperating with police, and “appalled” that police excused their failure to investigate more robustly on this lack of cooperation.
“We saw nothing that suggested there was a real will (by police) to tackle and overcome these obstacles,” it said.
The committee reserved some of its harshest language for Andy Hayman, a former assistant commissioner of police in charge of anti-terrorism activities and now a columnist for the Murdoch-owned Times of London.
It accused Mr. Hayman of failure to oversee a 2006 investigation properly and of having an “apparently lackadaisical attitude” toward his own social contacts with News International personnel.
“We do not expressly accuse Mr. Hayman of lying to us in his evidence, but it is difficult to escape the suspicion that he deliberately prevaricated in order to mislead us. . .Mr. Hayman’s conduct. . .was both unprofessional and inappropriate.
“We are very concerned that such an individual was placed in charge of anti-terrorism policing in the first place.”
The committee “deplored” the fact he took a job with News International within two months of resigning from the police.
The investigation of News International was later undertaken by another assistant commissioner, John Yates, who resigned on Monday following the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of police.
Mr. Yates has said his initial investigation was “very poor” and the committee said: “We agree.” It accused him of “a serious misjudgment.”
More withering criticism was directed at Dick Fedorcio, head of press operations at Scotland Yard. He was responsible for having given a contract to Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of the News of the World, to act as a police adviser, and has admitted he did not question Mr. Wallis about his possible involvement in phone hacking before hiring him. Mr. Wallis was arrested last week.
The committee said it was “appalled” and “shocked” by Mr. Fedorcio’s approach.
It also expressed concern at the slowness of police to contact all of the people who may have been victims of hacking. So far only 170 have been contacted but it estimated that up to 12,800 may have been affected. At that rate, it said, it would take at least a decade before everyone was informed.
It urged the government to make more funds available to the investigation so this process can be speeded up. Mr. Cameron later told Parliament more resources would be made available.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.)