British PM David Cameron struggles to maintain credibility amidst tabloid scandal

The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister David Cameron arrives to hold a press conference at 10 Downing Street on July 8, 2011 in London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron is fighting to protect his credibility after his former communications director was arrested along with another former News of the World journalist in the widening controversy over the behaviour of the British tabloid press.

Mr. Cameron started his day at a news conference meant to address some of the British public's anger at the scandal, but spent most of his time answering questions about his ties to Rupert Murdoch's powerful media empire and his own judgment in hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson to run his communications office.

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Mr. Coulson was arrested about an hour after the news conference ended on criminal allegations of corruption and illegally intercepting telephone voice mail messages. Police also rearrested Clive Goodman, a former News of the World royal correspondent, on allegations of paying $160,000 in bribes to several junior police officers, and were investigating whether News of the World attempted to destroy thousands of internal e-mails.

To address the growing concern, Mr. Cameron announced two separate inquiries shortly after the arrests were made public. He said an independent public inquiry would investigate the phone-hacking allegations at the News of the World once an ongoing police investigation is finished. A separate inquiry will look into the "culture, practices and ethics" of the British press.

In making the announcement, Mr. Cameron said all parties, including the country's politicians, should be called to account. He said there were also questions to be answered by James Murdoch, the heir apparent to his father's media empire.

"The truth is we have all been in this together," Mr. Cameron said. "Yes, including me."

The developments ended a dramatic week in which The News of the World, Britain's most popular tabloid newspaper, announced it was shutting down after revelations it had used private investigators to hack into the voice mail of celebrities and also murder victims and the relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of the hacking took place while Mr. Coulson was the tabloid's editor from 2003 to 2007.

Mr. Cameron has faced a barrage of criticism since his election last spring for hiring Mr. Coulson, who resigned in January. But this week's revelations and Thursday's arrests may have damaged the Prime Minister's reputation beyond repair.

Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband prompted Mr. Cameron's early morning news conference by saying the Prime Minister should admit "the appalling error of judgment he made in hiring Andy Coulson, apologizing for bringing him in to the centre of the government machine, coming clean about what conversations he had with Andy Coulson, before and after his appointment, about phone hacking."

Mr. Cameron also came under fire for his friendship with Rebekah Brooks, editor of News of the World in 2002, when some of the most serious hacking allegations took place, and now a top executive for Murdoch's British newspaper unit News International.

Even typically conservative analysts, such as Telegraph newspaper commentator Peter Oborne, said Mr. Cameron was in deep political trouble of his own making.

"The Prime Minister is in a mess," Mr. Oborne wrote. "To put the matter more graphically, he is in a sewer."

At Friday's news conference, Mr. Cameron said he supported calls for Ms. Brooks to resign from her post at News International. But he said he would not apologize for hiring Mr. Coulson as his director of communications in 2007.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian newspaper, said he had sent a message to Mr. Cameron last year warning that there could be long-term consequences from taking Mr. Coulson to Downing Street with him.

Mr. Cameron insisted he had a firm to do a background check on Mr. Coulson before he hired him. He described Mr. Coulson as a friend and said the disgraced editor should be judged by the work he did while in office.

"The decision to hire him was mine, and mine alone, and I take full responsibility for it," he said.

"It took a conscious choice to give someone who had screwed up a second chance," Mr. Cameron added. He said that Mr. Coulson quit his post in January because of "a sense that the second chance wasn't working."



This week's growing scandal has highlighted the unusually close relationship between politicians, newspaper owners and some senior journalists in Britain. Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and his predecessors have all entertained a steady stream of journalists at the prime minister's country retreat. Mr. Murdoch's influence is especially far-reaching and has grown steadily in the 40 years since he started building his British media empire. Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart wrote this week that Mr. Murdoch has become so powerful in political circles that "for years MPs have been terrified of the Murdoch press."

The Australian media mogul has tried to curb the power of media regulatory bodies that would keep his newspaper and broadcasting interests from expanding. He has also made his influence felt on broader issues, such as a campaign to oppose switching British currency from the pound to the euro.

Mr. Murdoch also seemed to have the power to make or break governments. Many analysts say he helped keep Tony Blair's and Mr. Brown's Labour governments in power and that his decision last year to switch his support to Mr. Cameron was a big factor in Labour's election loss.

Mr. Murdoch was one of the first people to visit the Prime Minister's Downing Street residence after Mr. Cameron moved in last year.

Ms. Brooks has also maintained close ties to British politicians. Mr. Cameron, Mr. Brown and several other members of Parliament attended her wedding in 2009.

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