British PM tested over media chief's resignation

22nd January 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron began looking for a new media chief Saturday to replace Andy Coulson after he quit over a tabloid phone-hacking row, in a test for the nine-month-old government.

"So far, our worst day in government," a senior Cameron aide told The Guardian after Coulson quit Friday, bowing to pressure over what he knew about hacking at the News of the World (NOTW) when he was its editor.

The dramatic development also renewed questions about practices at the Sunday tabloid, commentators said, at a crucial time for its owner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which is trying to expand its media holdings in Britain.

Coulson had been under growing pressure about what he knew about the activities of the NOTW's royal editor and a private investigator who were jailed in January 2007 for hacking voicemails of Princes William and Harry.

He resigned as editor over the row but said he knew nothing about it.

However, after a string of fresh revelations, he announced Friday that he could no longer focus on his job, saying: "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" at the departure of the 43-year-old, who helped his Conservative party win power in May 2010 elections.

But opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband questioned why the prime minister "hung on to Andy Coulson for so long", and many newspapers took the same line.

The left-leaning Independent said the resignation cast "serious doubt" on Cameron's judgment while The Financial Times said the premier was "reckless" to have hired Coulson in the first place, just months after he quit the NOTW.

The Guardian, which had been investigating the phone-hacking, said Cameron was now left "with a crucial vacancy as the coalition government weathers dissent about cuts", introduced to help reduce a huge deficit.

Coulson's move has put the scandal back at the top of the news agenda -- it dominated most of the front pages Saturday, despite competing for space with former prime minister Tony Blair's appearance before the Iraq war inquiry Friday.

The FT said this was a problem for NOTW's owners, Murdoch's News Corp, which is waiting to hear about its 7.8-billion-pound (12.2-billion-dollar, 9.1-billion-euro) takeover bid for British broadcaster BSkyB.

"The company has in the past made big out-of-court settlements to individuals whose phones were hacked," the business daily said in an editorial.

It added: "Were it to be proven that it had bought off potential witnesses in a future criminal prosecution, this could disqualify it from owning a broadcaster."

The scandal could also spread -- a lawyer, Mark Lewis, told Sky News Saturday that he was representing several clients preparing to bring civil actions against various papers over allegations of phone-tapping.

Police revived their investigation into the tapping at the NOTW in September and interviewed Coulson as a witness, after a journalist said the then editor had encouraged him to hack voicemails. But no charges were brought.

A number of public figures are still taking civil action against the newspaper, including Hollywood actress Sienna Miller. Her claims resulted in the recent suspension of NOTW executive Ian Edmondson.

Police subsequently wrote to the newspaper asking for any new evidence, and public prosecutors said they will be reviewing the entire police investigation.

© 2011 AFP

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