British PM under fresh pressure after hacking verdict

Wednesday 25 Jun 2014

British Prime Minister David Cameron apologised to parliament on Wednesday for hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson after his conviction for phone hacking, but faced fresh embarrassment as the trial judge rebuked him for speaking out about the case.

Cameron said it had been the "wrong decision" to make Coulson his media chief in 2007 but denied ignoring warnings about his activities at the tabloid, which Rupert Murdoch shut down in disgrace in July 2011.

Meanwhile, the eight-month phone hacking trial came to an end as jurors were sent home without reaching a verdict on two further charges against Coulson alleging payments to police officers.

The judge at London's Old Bailey reprimanded Cameron for interference in his first apology for hiring Coulson on Tuesday.

This came after the 46-year-old was found guilty of hacking but before a verdict had been reached on the bribery charges, raising the possibility that jurors could have been influenced.

Judge John Saunders said he had rejected a request by Coulson's defence lawyers to halt proceedings as a result, but said: "That does not mean that I am not concerned about what has happened in this case."

Coulson's conviction swung the spotlight on Cameron's decision to hire him just months after he resigned as News of the World editor in 2007 following the jailing of the paper's royal editor and a private investigator for hacking.

Coulson always denied knowing about the practice and the prime minister stuck by him for almost four years despite media reports to the contrary.

"I always said that if (Coulson's) assurances turned out to be wrong I would apologise fully and frankly to this House of Commons and I do so today from this despatch box. This was the wrong decision," Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons.

Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband said the charge against Cameron was "not one of ignorance but one of wilful negligence".

The high-profile trial centred on the News of the World's efforts to hack the phones of Britain's royal family, politicians, celebrities and victims of crime, including a murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl.

In a dramatic conclusion to one the most expensive cases in British criminal history, Coulson was found guilty of hacking but his fellow former editor and one-time lover Rebekah Brooks was cleared of all charges.

Coulson will learn next week his sentence for hacking, which could be a jail term of up to two years, and whether prosecutors will seek a retrial on the bribery claims.

The hacking scandal prompted a judge-led inquiry into the ethics of Britain's famously aggressive press, which made recommendations in 2012 for reforming the way it is governed.

However, the recommendations have yet to come into force following strong opposition by many newspapers, including the Murdoch press.

The sister of a prominent hacking victim, murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, used the end of the case to urge Cameron to keep his promise to change the way newspapers are regulated.

The revelation in 2011 that the News of the World had accessed Dowler's voicemail messages when she went missing six years earlier caused public revulsion and prompted Murdoch to close down the 168-year-old tabloid in disgrace.

"Ordinary people have suffered terribly from journalists who recklessly intruded into private grief and stole private information," Dowler's sister Gemma said.

She added: "Please keep your promise to us the victims that you will deliver real and permanent change to make sure what happened to us will never happen again."

The acquittal of Brooks on charges of phone hacking and bribing public officials took some of the pressure off Murdoch, although he still faces possible police questioning over the affair.

Brooks was the media mogul's protege, editing both the News of the World and its sister paper The Sun before becoming chief executive of his British newspaper empire, News UK.

However, Murdoch now faces the prospect of being interviewed by police over allegations of crime at his British papers, according to The Guardian newspaper.

The revelation about Dowler's phone was the final straw in a drip of revelations about hacking at the News of the World, Britain's top-selling Sunday newspaper at the time which was read by more than three million people.

The paper was later found to have hacked a long list of public figures including Prince William, the second-in-line to the British throne, his now wife Kate and celebrities such as actress Sienna Miller.

Five other News of the World employees who pleaded guilty to hacking before the trial began are also due to be sentenced next week.

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