Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday bowed to opposition pressure and called an emergency session of parliament as the spiralling phone-hacking scandal claimed the scalp of Britain’s top police chief.
As Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire, protested her innocence after her arrrest, Cameron defended hiring another ex-Murdoch employee, Andy Coulson, as his head of communications.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson resigned on Sunday over the force’s hiring of Coulson’s former deputy at the shuttered News of the World, but took a parting swipe at the prime minister’s own ties to Coulson.
“I don’t believe the two situations are the same in any way, shape or form,” Cameron told a joint news conference in Pretoria with South African President Jacob Zuma when asked about Stephenson’s comments.
Cameron had already cut short his trip to Africa from four days to two, and after demands from the Labour Party he announced that he would now delay parliament’s summer break for a day to deal with the crisis.
“I am asking for parliament to sit an extra day on Wednesday so I can make a new statement adding to the details of the judicial inquiry and answer questions that come up from today’s announcements or indeed tomorrow’s announcements,” he said.
On Tuesday the Australian-born Murdoch, his son James, who is chairman of his father’s British newspaper operation News International, and former NI chief executive Brooks are scheduled to give evidence before a committee of MPs.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband piled further pressure on Cameron — who has also faced criticism for his social contacts with Murdoch aides, including Brooks — by calling on the Conservative leader to apologise for hiring Coulson.
“It is his failure to do that that now draws the sharp contrast between his actions and the honourable actions of Sir Paul Stephenson who resigned over the hiring of Mr Coulson’s deputy,” he said.
Brooks, who resigned her post on Friday, was arrested on suspicion of phone-hacking and bribing police on Sunday before being bailed until October.
Her lawyer Stephen Parkinson said she was “not guilty of any criminal offence” and said Scotland Yard would have to account for the “enormous reputational damage” to the 43-year-old.
“Despite arresting her yesterday and conducting an interview process lasting nine hours, they put no allegations to her and showed her no documents connecting her with any crime,” he said.
He said Brooks — who edited the News of the World when it was accused of hacking a murdered girl’s voicemails in 2002 — wanted to attend the hearing on Tuesday but it was for parliament to decide whether it should be delayed.
At a previous hearing in 2003 Brooks, the 10th person and most senior Murdoch aide to be arrested over the scandal, admitted the paper had made payments to police.
With the scandal coming to the door of Scotland Yard, Stephenson resigned but defended his “integrity”, while pointedly comparing the Coulson issue with the force’s employment of Neil Wallis, a former executive editor at the tabloid.
Stephenson added that he had not made Wallis’ employment public because he did not want to “compromise” the prime minister.
The Met chief was felled by reports on Sunday which said he accepted a five-week stay earlier this year at a luxury health spa where Wallis was a PR consultant. Wallis was himself arrested last week.
But Cameron said there was no suggestion that while in government the work of Coulson, who quit Downing Street in January and was arrested on July 8, “was in any way inappropriate or bad”.
“There is a contrast, I would say, with the situation at the Metropolitan Police Service, where clearly at the Metropolitan Police the issues have been around whether or not the investigation is being pursued properly,” he added.
“And that is why I think Sir Paul reached a different conclusion.”
Another senior officer at Scotland Yard, John Yates, who decided in 2009 not to reopen the investigation into the News of the World, faced calls for his resignation on Monday from the civilian body that oversees the force.
Murdoch’s US-based News Corp. is in crisis, having also had to abandon its bid for full control of pay-TV giant BSkyB and accept the resignations on Friday of Dow Jones chief Les Hinton, who had worked with him for 52 years.
Shares in News Corp. plummeted 5.82 percent in Australian trade on Monday.