UK PM Cameron defends ill-fated Andy Coulson hire
LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron, confident and unruffled, Thursday defended his ill-fated decision to make disgraced tabloid editor Andy Coulson his communications director even though Coulson had already been tarnished in the phone-hacking scandal.
He also defended the conduct of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the decision to put him in charge of judging Rupert Murdoch's controversial bid to take full control of the lucrative BSkyB broadcasting company. Hunt has been accused by critics of being too close to the mogul and his company, News Corp.
Text messages read before a U.K. media ethics inquiry also shed light on the cozy, supportive relationship Cameron enjoyed with senior Murdoch executives as he tried to wrest control of Britain's government from the Labour Party before the 2010 general election that brought him to power.
In sworn testimony before the inquiry, Cameron said he chose Coulson because he was looking for a tough man to implement his media strategy in a demanding, 24/7 news environment. He said prime ministers are under constant media barrage and need strong help to get their message across.
"I had met him when he was editor of News of the World, and I felt he was a very effective individual," Cameron said of Coulson. "That was my decision; I take full responsibility for it."
Cameron said he had received assurances that Coulson was not involved in the phone-hacking scandal — but those proved hollow when Coulson was forced to resign from his senior government post last year after new revelations about widespread wrongdoing while he was top editor at the News of the World.
Coulson has since been charged with perjury. He denies wrongdoing. He had resigned as News of the World editor in 2007 after his paper was found to have hacked into the voicemail messages of top aides to the royal family — a practice initially characterized as the work of a rogue reporter, but later proven to be widespread, accepted procedure at the now-defunct paper.
In written statements to the committee, Cameron said he would not have hired Coulson if he had known about the editor's involvement.
"He denied any knowledge of the hacking but said he took responsibility for what had happened on his watch," Cameron said in the statement. "I asked him specifically about his involvement."
He told the committee Thursday that he believed at first the Coulson had acted "honorably" by resigning from the paper and believed he deserved a second chance.
Cameron's decision to bring Coulson into his inner circle has left the prime minister open to questions about his judgment in choosing a man who was already linked to the phone-hacking scandal. But he said Coulson had done a good job as communications chief and had performed his duties honorably.
"This has come back to haunt both him and me," Cameron said.
He admitted seeking the advice of Rebekah Brooks, another former tabloid editor facing criminal charges, before hiring Coulson.
Both Brooks and Coulson were senior editors in Rupert Murdoch's News International empire, and Brooks eventually became chief of Murdoch's UK newspapers before she, too, was forced out because of suspected links to the scandal.
The prime minister admitted frequent visits with Brooks and her husband, Charlie Brooks, a longtime friend and tennis partner who also faces criminal charges in the scandal. He also acknowledged receiving an extremely supportive text from Brooks in 2009 just before a major party conference speech.
"I'm so rooting for you tomorrow, not just as a proud friend but because professionally we are in this together," Brooks wrote to Cameron before the big event. "Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!"
The text shows how close Cameron was to Murdoch's chief executives during the run-up to the general election, when the Murdoch papers, particularly The Sun, play an important role shaping public opinion.
Coulson has been charged with perjury in a case touched by the phone-hacking scandal. Brooks was charged last month with three counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice — an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Relations with Murdoch's media empire have been problematic for Cameron. The prime minister has faced criticism for the way his government handled Murdoch's bid to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting, a lucrative satellite broadcaster in which it already had a 39 percent stake.
Cameron told the committee that his government consulted its lawyers and acted properly in appointing Hunt to oversee the government's response to the bid. He said careful review was needed because the takeover bid raised serious public policy questions about media plurality.
He has defended Hunt from charges that he was too close to Murdoch and his son James Murdoch and provided them with inside information about the vetting process.
"It was a perfectly rational decision, done with the advice of lawyers," he said.
The prime minister conceded that the press and politicians had gotten too close and needed to "reset" their relationship.
Cameron said James Murdoch told him personally over drinks that The Sun newspaper would back his party in a general election, switching its support to Cameron's Conservatives after years of backing the rival Labour Party.