UK's Cameron under new pressure over Murdoch links

21st July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister David Cameron was under renewed pressure on Thursday from Britain's phone-hacking scandal after it emerged he discussed Rupert Murdoch's failed bid for BSkyB with the mogul's executives.

A day after admitting to lawmakers that he regretted hiring an ex-editor of a Murdoch paper as his media chief, the Conservative leader faced new damaging questions about his links to the tycoon's empire.

Murdoch, who flew out of Britain Wednesday after a turbulent 11-day visit, was forced to abandon his bid to take full control of British pay-TV giant BSkyB earlier this month as the phone-hacking scandal escalated.

The scandal forced the closure of his News of the World tabloid and a string of arrests and resignations.

After Cameron admitted in a stormy session of parliament that he did talk to Murdoch executives over the BSkyB deal, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was forced to defend him on Thursday.

"He has been very categorical that no inappropriate discussions took place," Clegg told reporters at a London press conference.

"And more importantly still... he played no role, could play no role, didn't play (a) role in the actual formal decision making process itself."

Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, who was responsible for making the final decision on whether the deal would go through, had also insisted Wednesday that Cameron's discussions on the BSkyB deal were "irrelevant."

"They were irrelevant because the person who had the responsibility... the person who was making this decision was myself," he said.

But opposition Labour party culture spokesman Ivan Lewis seized on the disclosure, saying that Cameron had "far more questions to answer."

"The whole point about this (bid) process is that it is meant to be entirely independent and transparent," he told the BBC.

"It is meant to be entirely in the hands of Jeremy Hunt, free of any influence whatsoever of David Cameron."

The revelation ramped up pressure on the prime minister following the arrest on July 8 of his ex-communications director Andy Coulson on suspicion of involvement in phone hacking and bribing police.

Coulson was News of the World editor but resigned in 2007 after the paper's royal editor and a private investigator were jailed for hacking phones, although he denied knowing the practice was taking place on his watch.

He quit Downing Street in January as new evidence of hacking emerged.

Addressing lawmakers Wednesday, Cameron conceded that "with 20-20 hindsight and all that has followed, I would not have offered him (Coulson) the job and I expect that he wouldn't have taken it".

He added: "You live and you learn and believe you me, I have learned."

He admitted that another arrested former executive of the paper, Neil Wallis, may have advised Coulson before last year's general election but said his Conservative party had not paid him, and he did not know about it at the time.

The phone-hacking scandal dogged the Murdoch empire for years but exploded into a full-blown crisis this month when claims emerged the News of the World hacked the phones of a murdered teenager and relatives of dead British soldiers.

The crisis led to Murdoch and his son James, deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., being dragged before a committee of British lawmakers Tuesday who grilled them for almost three hours over the scandal.

Murdoch, who described the hearing as the "most humble day of my life," had his testimony interrupted when he was attacked by a protester with a foam pie.

© 2011 AFP

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