British PM's spin chief quits in phone-hack row

21st January 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron's media chief resigned Friday, saying pressure over phone-hacking claims at a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid he once edited had made it difficult to do his job.

Andy Coulson has withstood months of strain over allegations -- which he denies -- that while editor at the News of the World he encouraged reporters to hack the cellphone messages of royals, politicians and celebrities.

"Unfortunately, continued coverage of events connected to my old job at the News of the World has made it difficult for me to give the 110 percent needed in this role," Coulson said in a statement confirming his resignation.

"I stand by what I've said about those events but when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it's time to move on."

Cameron said he was "very sorry" Coulson was going but added that he could "understand that the continuing pressures on him and his family mean that he feels compelled to do so."

Coulson played a major role in helping propel Conservative leader Cameron to power in elections in May 2010 and was a key backroom figure in Downing Street's slick media operation.

"Andy has told me that the focus on him was impeding his ability to do his job and was starting to prove a distraction for the government," Cameron said in a statement.

The hacking saga has refused to die down since the News of the World's royal correspondent and a private investigator were jailed in 2007 for conspiracy to access mobile phone messages involving Princes William and Harry.

Coulson resigned as editor of the paper, owned by Australian-born media tycoon Murdoch, although he insisted he knew nothing about it the affair.

He signed up as Cameron's communications director later in 2007.

Police revived their investigation in September and interviewed Coulson as a witness last year after a journalist said Coulson had encouraged him to hack voice mails.

They said in December there was no evidence to bring charges after several witnesses refused to testify.

But the case flared up again earlier this month when Ian Edmondson, the paper's assistant editor for news, was suspended over what it called "serious allegations."

Prosecutors said a week ago they would review police material after actress Sienna Miller sued the paper for harassment and for breaching her privacy.

A document lodged at the High Court in London links Edmondson with the interception of voicemail messages from the phone of Hollywood actress Miller.

As speculation mounted over Coulson's replacement, the outgoing media chief immediately faced accusations of trying to bury bad news by making his announcement on a busy news day in Britain.

It came as former premier Tony Blair made a second appearance at the Iraq war inquiry and as the fallout continues from the departure of opposition finance spokesman Alan Johnson on Thursday due to personal problems.

"The Coulson issue must be urgent to (be) announced mid-TB (Tony Blair) Iraq inquiry evidence," Blair's former media chief Alastair Campbell said in a sarcastic Twitter message.

"The issue will move straight from Coulson's situation to Cameron's judgement."

Chris Bryant, a former minister in the previous Labour government who helped launch an inquiry last year into claims that lawmakers' phones were hacked, said Cameron had "clung on to him (Coulson) for dear life."

© 2011 AFP

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