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UK premier: I regret hiring scandal-hit tabloid editor

Image: British Prime Minister David Cameron departs 10 Downing Street for parliament on July 20
British Prime Minister David Cameron departs his home at 10 Downing Street for parliament in London, Britain, 20 July 2011.Andy Rain / EPA
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Prime Minister David Cameron, defending his integrity to parliament in an emergency session on Wednesday, said he regretted hiring a journalist at the heart of the scandal that has rocked Britain's press, police and politicians.

But in two stormy hours of questioning he seemed to rally his Conservative party behind him and stopped short of bowing to demands that he apologize outright for what the Labor party leader called a "catastrophic error of judgment" in hiring a former editor of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World as a spokesman.

The prime minister will only offer a "profound apology" if Andy Coulson, who has since resigned, turns out to have lied about being unaware of illegal practices at his newspaper.

But the 44-year-old premier spoke with apparent feeling about 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," he said.

"It was my decision ... Of course I regret and I am extremely sorry about the furor it has caused. With 20:20 hindsight ... I would not have offered him the job."

The speaker of parliament's House of Commons had to interrupt Wednesday's proceedings several times to ask lawmakers to be quiet.

Labor party leader Ed Miliband accused Cameron of a "deliberate attempt to hide from the facts" about Coulson, who resigned as editor of the News of the World newspaper in 2007 after two people employed by the paper were convicted of phone-hacking.

Miliband, whose muted first year as opposition leader has been fired up by attacking Cameron on the scandal, has stopped short of demanding Cameron's resignation.

But he asked during the debate: "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?"

Opposition members of parliament questioned the credibility of Cameron's defense that Coulson had assured him when he was hired, that as editor of the News of the World, he knew nothing of the hacking of voicemails which had led to the paper's royal correspondent being jailed earlier that year.

Cameron has said he decided to give Coulson "a second chance" when he hired him as his communications chief. On Wednesday the Guardian newspaper reported Coulson had only received mid-level security clearance before he was hired, avoiding the most rigorous checks before he was hired. Spokesmen for previous prime ministers had received more thorough background checks, according to the paper.

Coulson, who denied any wrongdoing, stepped down from that government post in January 2011.

He was arrested earlier this month after numerous allegations of phone-hacking emerged.

It is alleged the phones of murdered teenager Milly Dowler and victims of London terrorist attacks were hacked.

"Number 10 (Cameron's office) has now published the full email exchange between my chief of staff and [former Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner] John Yates and it shows my staff behaved entirely properly," Cameron said Wednesday.

The prime minister's chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, stopped police from briefing Cameron on developments in the scandal last September. Llewellyn did this just days after the New York Times had run an article claiming Coulson had in fact been aware of the use of illegal phone-hacking when he was editing the News of the World.

Yates and former Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson told the House of Commons' home affairs committee Tuesday that they believed Llewellyn wanted to stop anything from "compromising" the prime minister, The Guardian newspaper reported.

'Breathing space'
Beleaguered but hardly under serious threat of being ousted by his party allies after less than 15 months in office, Cameron defended his actions and those of his staff in dealings with police chiefs who resigned this week and with Murdoch's News Corp. global media empire.

"He seems to have gained a bit of breathing space over the course of this debate," said Andrew Russell, senior politics lecturer at Manchester University. "He looked more self-assured today than he has been for a little while."

Cameron cut short a tour of Africa as parliament delayed its summer recess by a day to quiz him.

"Cameron has suffered some reputational damage. There is no doubt about that," said Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warwick University. "But it is unlikely to escalate into a resignation issue unless something new and deeply damaging emerges."

A poll by Reuters/Ipsos MORI showed Britons' satisfaction with Cameron had fallen to its lowest level since he entered office in May last year. Only 38 percent were happy with the way he was doing his job.

But Helen Cleary of Ipsos MORI cautioned: "We know from other scandals that public opinion tends to bounce back."

And she added: "Even now, after Ed Miliband's boost from the scandal, Cameron is ahead ... on personal satisfaction ratings."

'Catalog of failures' The Commons speaker, John Bercow, condemned earlier Wednesday a foam-pie attack on media mogul Rupert Murdoch at a parliamentary committee meeting Tuesday.

"I was very concerned," Bercow said, adding: "It is wholly unacceptable."

He announced an independent inquiry into the incident.

Also Wednesday, the home affairs committee criticized what it said were attempts by Murdoch's British arm, News International, to "deliberately thwart" a 2005-06 phone hacking investigation.

The committee, which rushed to publish its report after the hearing Tuesday, also said British police committed a "catalog of failures."

The committee also said more resources had to be invested in informing other potential phone-hacking victims.

The committee's report, which detailed the police investigation and the phone hackers' methods, was particularly critical of Yates and former assistant police commissioner Andy Hayman (Hayman has been a terrorism analyst for NBC News).

It said Yates' 2009 review of the investigation — in which he decided there was no need to reopen the inquiry — was "very poor" and that he was guilty of "serious misjudgment."

Hayman, who led the initial investigation, had a "cavalier attitude" toward his News International contacts which risked undermining public confidence in police impartiality.

Hayman obtained a job as a columnist for News International's Times newspaper after he left the police force. Yates resigned on Monday, saying he could not stay in his role amid "innuendo and speculation" about his conduct.

Disturbance at hearing
News International has been at the center of the phone-hacking scandal for weeks, rocking Rupert Murdoch's empire. Murdoch, his son James, chairman of News International, and Rebekah Brooks, who resigned as chief executive of News International on Friday, appeared before a different parliamentary committee on Tuesday to answer questions about phone-hacking.

A man is held by police after he tried to attack News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch with a white substance during a parliamentary committee hearing on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. Murdoch was attacked by a protester on Tuesday while giving evidence to a British parliamentary committee at which he defended his son and his company over a scandal that has rocked the British establishment. REUTERS/UK Pool via Reuters TV (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW MEDIA BUSINESS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNSX00514

that the man accused of throwing a paper plate of shaving foam at Rupert Murdoch as he gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport committee has been charged with the offense of causing harassment, alarm or distress in a public place.

The paper said the accused man, Jonathan May-Bowles, 26, of Windsor, goes by the name of "Jonnie Marbles" and was a member of the opposition Labor party, but added that his membership had been suspended late Tuesday.

The Guardian said May-Bowles was due to appear in court Friday.

Shortly before the attack, the Twitter user @JonnieMarbles tweeted: