British PM on defensive as hacking row claims police boss

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The government of British Prime Minister David Cameron scrambled to insulate itself from the phone-hacking scandal Monday after the nation's top police chief became the most high-profile casualty yet.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson resigned on Sunday after a string of revelations over the force's hiring of Neil Wallis, a former executive of the News of the World, the now-shuttered tabloid at the centre of the row.

Stephenson delivered a parting shot at Cameron by saying that he did not know Wallis was linked to the investigation, unlike Cameron's former communications chief and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.

The Scotland Yard chief added that he "did not want to compromise the prime minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson."

Cameron flew into South Africa on Monday for a trade visit. He was told about Stephenson's resignation just over an hour after taking off from London on Sunday for a two-day trip to South Africa and Nigeria, aides said.

But Home Secretary Theresa May raised concerns about Scotland Yard's relationship with Wallis and attempted to distance the government from the furore now engulfing the police force.

"I think the Met is different from government. The Metropolitan Police are in charge, and responsible for, investigating alleged wrongdoings at the News of the World," May said told the BBC Monday.

"I think it is important to keep a line between the investigators and the investigated."

May defended Cameron's judgment in hiring Coulson, who was arrested over the scandal earlier this month.

"David Cameron himself has made the point that he gave Andy Coulson a second chance, that second chance did not work and Andy Coulson resigned again," she said.

In his resignation speech Sunday, Stephenson defended himself over the revelation that he accepted a five-week stay at a luxury health spa where Wallis was a consultant, saying he did not know about the link.

Wallis was arrested last week over the scandal.

Rebekah Brooks, former head of Rupert Murdoch's British newsaper arm News International and another former News of the World editor, was detained on Sunday.

© 2011 AFP

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