British PM's media chief under pressure over hacking row

6th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

British opposition lawmakers called for Prime Minister David Cameron's media chief to quit Monday over fresh allegations that he knew about illegal phone tapping by reporters when he was a tabloid editor.

Police meanwhile said they were prepared to look again into the scandal at the News of the World -- which three years ago saw its royal editor jailed for hacking -- after fresh revelations about the row in The New York Times.

Andy Coulson, Cameron's communications chief, quit as editor of the News of The World in 2007, saying he took "ultimate responsibility" for the phone tapping scandal but denying he knew anything about the illegal activities.

A recent report by The New York Times, however, quoted a former reporter at the tabloid, Sean Hoare, as saying Coulson did know about the tapping -- and also suggesting that police failed to investigate the case fully at the time.

Amid pressure from opposition Labour politicians to re-open the case, including ex-deputy prime minister John Prescott who believes his phone may have been tapped, police said they would investigate any new evidence.

"This is the first time we have heard of Mr. Hoare or anything he has to say," Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates told the BBC Monday.

He added: "We have always said that if any new material, new evidence, was produced we would consider it."

Meanwhile Coulson's spokesman said he was ready to meet police voluntarily to discuss the claims.

"Mr. Coulson emphatically denies these allegations. He has, however, offered to talk to officers if the need arises and would welcome the opportunity to give his view on Mr Hoare's claims," the spokesman said.

The case sparked angry exchanges in the House of Commons on Monday, where ex-Labour home secretary Alan Johnson said it was "extraordinary" that Cameron had employed Coulson -- and said he should be sacked.

He also demanded that police dig deeper into the case, but current Home Secretary Theresa May, a member of Cameron's centre-right Conservative party, said she would not interfere in police business.

"Any police investigation is an operational matter in which ministers have no role," she told parliament.

Johnson quipped that May has previously complained about the ex-Labour government creating a "surveillance state" but ministers now "may have their very own expert in the matter in charge of government communications".

Earlier, Cameron's official spokesman told reporters that "he has full confidence in Andy Coulson and he continues to do his job", adding: "He has denied those allegations and the prime minister accepts that."

Coulson, Cameron's director of communications and a special adviser, is paid 140,000 pounds (167,000 euros, 215,000 dollars) a year of public money, only slightly less than Cameron himself.

Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed in 2007 after the phone messages of aides to Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry were illegally accessed.

The original probe uncovered nearly 3,000 mobile phone numbers of potential targets including prominent police, military and sporting figures in what was a major scandal.

The News of the World has a strong reputation for breaking news stories.

Recent scoops include the alleged involvement of Pakistani cricketers in a betting scam and details of the financial difficulties of Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of Queen Elizabeth II's son Prince Andrew.

The British tabloid accused The New York Times of being "motivated by commercial rivalry", adding: "We reject absolutely any suggestion there was a widespread culture of wrongdoing at the News of the World."

The News of the World is published by News International, part of media baron Rupert Murdoch's stable.

The New York Times is currently engaged in an intense rivalry with The Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch publication, in the United States.

© 2010 AFP

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