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British PM Cameron defends handling of Murdoch scandal

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, left, speaks about phone hacking to parliament in a still image taken from video in London July 20, 2011. Cameron on Wednesday defended the way his staff dealt with the police over allegations of phone-hacking and bribery at Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers .

REUTERS TV/Parbul TV via Reuters TV

British Prime Minister David Cameron, defending his integrity in an emergency debate in parliament on Wednesday, said he regretted the uproar caused by his hiring of a former newspaper editor at the heart of a phone-hacking scandal.

Under pressure from opponents to apologise, he said Andy Coulson, his former spokesman who once edited Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, had denied knowing of phone-hacking by the paper. But should Mr. Coulson turn out to have lied, the prime minister said he would then offer an apology.

Beleaguered but not seen under serious threat of being dumped by his party after less than 15 months in office, Mr. Cameron defended his actions and those of his staff in dealings with the police and Murdoch's News Corp media empire.

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But the 44-year-old Conservative premier said after his toughest two weeks in power: "You don't make decisions in hindsight; you make them in the present. You live and you learn - and believe you me, I have learnt."

Mr. Cameron, who cut short a tour of Africa as parliament delayed its summer recess to quiz him, said in his opening statement: "I have an old-fashioned view about innocent until proven guilty. But if it turns out I have been lied to, that would be a moment for a profound apology. And, in that event, I can tell you I will not fall short."

Labour's Ed Miliband, whose muted first year as opposition leader has been given a boost by his assault on Mr. Cameron over the scandal, calling the hiring of Mr. Coulson a "catastrophic error of judgment."

"Why doesn't he do more than give a half-apology and provide the full apology now for hiring Mr Coulson and bringing him into the heart of Downing Street?" Mr. Miliband asked.

Mr. Cameron resisted, with a note of regret: "On the decision to hire him ... it was my decision ... Of course I regret and I am extremely sorry about the furore it has caused. With 20:20 hindsight ... I would not have offered him the job."

It would, he went on under questioning later, be a matter of "disgrace" for the government if Mr. Coulson, appointed by the Conservative party in opposition in 2007 and brought into the prime minister's office after the May 2010 election, had been lying about not knowing of criminal practices at his newspaper.

A day after Murdoch denied his own responsibility for the affair, Mr. Cameron gave details of final arrangements for a judicial inquiry into the scandal and the wider issues it has raised over unhealthy relationships among Britain's press, police and political establishment.

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He also tried to move the political agenda away from the scandal, saying voters wanted his government to concentrate on handling an economic crisis and other pressing matters.

The scandal, centred on Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. global media empire, has forced the resignations of senior executives at the company and two of Britain's top policemen as well as fuelling opposition attacks on Cameron's judgment.

The 80-year-old Mr. Murdoch was attacked by a protester with a foam pie when he appeared before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday and made a "humble" apology for the scandal but refused to resign. He said staff who "betrayed" him were at fault.

Analysts said Mr. Murdoch's televised apology had now put the spotlight on how Mr. Cameron emerges from scrutiny in the emergency parliamentary debate over the scandal, which has included allegations of hacking into a murdered schoolgirl's voicemail and the phones of British troops killed in combat.

A few hours before Mr. Cameron faced legislators at mid-morning, another cross-party parliamentary committee published a report criticizing both News International, the British arm of News Corp., and the police over the phone-hacking investigation.

"There has been a catalogue of failures by the Metropolitan Police, and deliberate attempts by News International to thwart the various investigations," said Keith Vaz, the chair of the Home Affairs committee.

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The scandal is unlikely to bring down Mr. Cameron, in office for less than 15 months, but could make it harder for him to manage a Conservative-led coalition that is focused on quick deficit reduction, which has labour unions threatening mass strikes.

Mr. Cameron cut short a trip to Africa for the debate, with the opposition Labour Party determined to put him on the rack over why he employed Andy Coulson, a former editor of Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, since shut down over the scandal.

"The Murdochs can say they apologized unreservedly, they faced the music, (and) they endured a personal physical attack," said Andrew Hawkins of polling company Comres.

"It puts the attention firmly back on the political ramifications and, in particular, David Cameron and his judgment over the whole Andy Coulson issue," said Mr. Hawkins.

Labour Leader Ed Miliband has already put pressure on Mr. Cameron over Mr. Coulson, who resigned as editor of the News of the World but denied any wrongdoing after two people employed by the newspaper were jailed for phone-hacking in 2007.

Then opposition leader Mr. Cameron appointed Mr. Coulson as his communications chief that year and kept him on becoming prime minister in May 2010. He has said he gave Mr. Coulson the job because there was no evidence of his involvement in hacking.

Mr. Coulson quit his government role in January days before police launched a new investigation, and Mr. Miliband turned up the heat on Mr. Cameron when the former editor was arrested for questioning earlier this month and then freed on bail.

Speaking in Nigeria before flying home, Mr. Cameron signalled a desire to push the agenda away from a scandal that has dominated every debate for two weeks.

"The British public want something else too," Mr. Cameron said.

"They don't want us to lose our focus on an economy that provides good jobs, on an immigration system that works for Britain, a welfare system that is fair for our people."

More Britons are unhappy with the way Mr. Cameron is doing his job than at any point since he took office in May last year, according to a poll released on Wednesday. The latest monthly Reuters/Ipsos MORI showed 53 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with Mr. Cameron, versus 38 per cent who were content.

Satisfaction with the government was also at its lowest level since May 2010, with almost two-thirds of voters (63 per cent) critical of the way it was running the country.

In another twist in the ongoing scandal, a British judge has awarded actor Hugh Grant the right to see evidence that could reveal whether his voice mails were intercepted by journalists at the now-defunct News of the World.

A judge at Britain's High Court said police should disclose information to him that was allegedly gathered by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and used by the Sunday tabloid and other newspapers.

Mr. Grant, who says he was told his phone was broken into by the News of the World, has been one of the most prominent celebrity critics of the 168-year-old tabloid, which was shut down earlier this month amid a widening scandal over its misdeeds.

Socialite Jemima Khan was also given the right to see the phone hacking evidence.

Police declined comment Wednesday.

With files from The Associated Press

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