Britain’s Conservative-led government denied on Saturday that it was too close to Rupert Murdoch’s scandal-hit media empire, as the mogul apologised for phone hacking by one of his tabloids in full-page newspaper ads across the country.
Government records show that Prime Minister David Cameron had scores of meetings with media executives in the past year, including more than 20 with Murdoch employees.
Rupert Murdoch’s son James, his former British lieutenant Rebekah Brooks and ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson also all stayed at the prime minister’s country home, Chequers.
Mr. Coulson’s stay in March came two months after he resigned as Mr. Cameron’s communications chief amid the spiralling phone hacking and police bribery scandal. Mr. Coulson was arrested in the scandal last week.
Critics said the invitation showed poor judgment on Mr. Cameron’s part.
But Foreign Secretary William Hague said Saturday he was not embarrassed “in any way” by the government’s relationship with Mr. Murdoch’s executives.
“It’s not surprising that in a democratic country there is some contact between leaders” and media chiefs, he told the BBC.
“I’m not embarrassed by it in any way, but there is something wrong here in this country and it must be put right,” Hague said. “It’s been acknowledged by the prime minister and I think that’s the right attitude to take.”
Mr. Cameron acknowledged last week that the relationship between politicians, the media and the police in Britain had grown too cozy and must be changed.
Mr. Hague said Mr. Cameron had invited Mr. Coulson to Chequers “to thank him for his work, he’s worked for him for several years, that is a normal, human thing to do.”
Mr. Coulson is one of nine people arrested and questioned by police over what they knew about phone hacking at the News of the World, the 168-year-old tabloid shut down by Mr. Murdoch last week after the scale of its illegal hacking became clear. No one has been charged.
Mr. Murdoch is struggling to contain the scandal, which has scuttled his bid for lucrative TV broadcaster BSkyB, knocked billions off the value of his News Corp. empire. On Friday, the scandal claimed the jobs of Brooks and another senior Murdoch aide, Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton.
News Corp. made a public act of contrition Saturday with an ad published in seven national newspapers and headlined “We are sorry.” Signed by Murdoch, it apologized “for the serious wrongdoing that occurred.”
Mr. Murdoch on Friday also met the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by the News of the World in 2002. The revelation, that journalists had accessed her phone in search of scoops while police were looking for the missing 13-year-old, possibly even interfering in the investigation, inflamed a long-simmering scandal about illegal eavesdropping by the tabloid.
The phones of celebrities, royal aides, politicians and top athletes were also alleged to have been hacked, and police are investigating whether the scandal also reached to the victims of London’s 2005 terrorist bombings and the families of dead British soldiers.
Murdoch’s News Corp. empire includes Fox News, the 20th Century Fox movie studio, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and three British newspapers -- The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times.