LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron emphatically denied claims that his staff tried to stop an inquiry into phone hacking at the News of the World and defended his decision to hire one of the tabloid's editors as his communications chief.
In a raucous emergency session Wednesday in Parliament, Cameron did admit that both the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour parties had failed to pursue key developments in the hacking case and had actively courted media baron Rupert Murdoch.
"The clock has stopped on my watch and we need to sort it out," Cameron told lawmakers, promising that a government inquiry would examine the cozy relationship between British politicians and media and investigate whether other news organizations may have broken the law.
Police are also probing whether other news media breached privacy laws.
Cameron cut short his Africa trip to appear before the House of Commons, which delayed its summer break to debate issues engulfing Britain's political and media elite and Murdoch's global communications empire, News Corp.
Murdoch owned the troubled News of the World, where the hacking claims first emerged in 2005, when the royal alerted police that the tabloid may have learned about Prince William's knee injury by illegally intercepting phone messages.
Cameron's former communications chief Andy Coulson — a former editor at the tabloid — is among 10 people who have been arrested in the scandal. One has been cleared.
Lawmakers want to know why Cameron insisted on hiring Coulson despite warnings and how much the prime minister knew about the phone hacking investigation. Some have alleged that some people on Cameron's staff may have met with police in an attempt to pressure them to drop the investigation.
"To risk any perception that No 10 (Downing Street) was seeking to influence a sensitive police investigation in any way would have been completely wrong," he said.
Cameron did, however, meet with News Corp. executives more than two dozen times from May 2010 to this month — meetings that were criticized in Parliament by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who said Cameron made a "catastrophic error of judgment" in hiring Coulson.
Coulson was an editor at News of the World when royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested and jailed for phone hacking. It was then that the original police inquiry into phone hacking was dropped and Coulson quit the paper. Cameron — then opposition leader — then hired him.
This January, police reopened the hacking investigation and are now investigating some 3,870 people whose names and telephone numbers were found in News of the World files. It remains unclear how many of them were hacking victims. Coulson resigned his post at Downing Street in the same month.
News Corp. said Wednesday it had now eliminated legal payments to Mulcaire — a day after Murdoch told lawmakers in a special parliamentary committee hearing that he would try to find a way to stop the payments. Mulcaire's lawyer, Sarah Webb, declined to comment on the development.
A judge Wednesday awarded "Notting Hill" actor Hugh Grant — one of the most prominent celebrity critics of the Murdoch empire — the right to see whether he was one of the tabloid hacking victims.
The scandal captivated television audiences from America to Murdoch's native Australia on Tuesday, as Murdoch endured a three-hour grilling by U.K. lawmakers. The media baron said he had known nothing of allegations that staff at News of the World hacked into cell phones and bribed police to get information on celebrities, politicians and crime victims.