London: Prime Minister David Cameron, defending his integrity to parliament in emergency session on Wednesday, said he regretted hiring a journalist at the heart of the scandal that has rocked Britain`s press, police and politicians.
But in two stormy hours of questioning he seemed to rally his Conservative party behind him and stopped short of bowing to demands that he apologise outright for what the Labour leader called a "catastrophic error of judgment" in hiring as a spokesman a former editor of Rupert Murdoch`s News of the World.
Only if Andy Coulson, who has since resigned, should turn out to have lied about not knowing of illegal practices at his newspaper would the prime minister offer a "profound apology".
But the 44-year-old premier spoke with apparent feeling about his toughest two weeks in power: "You don’t make decisions in hindsight; you make them in the present. You live and you learn – and believe you me, I have learnt," he said.
"It was my decision ... Of course I regret and I am extremely sorry about the furore it has caused. With 20:20 hindsight ... I would not have offered him the job."
Beleaguered but hardly under serious threat of being ousted by his party allies after less than 15 months in office, Cameron defended his actions and those of his staff in dealings with police chiefs who resigned this week over the affair and with Murdoch`s News Corp global media empire.
"He seems to have gained a bit of breathing space over the course of this debate," said Andrew Russell, senior politics lecturer at Manchester University. "He looked more self assured today than he has been for a little while."
Cameron had cut short a tour of Africa as parliament delayed its summer recess by a day to quiz him.
He said of Coulson, who is under suspicion of conspiring to intercept calls and bribe police: "I have an old-fashioned view about innocent until proven guilty. But if it turns out I have been lied to, that would be a moment for a profound apology.
"And, in that event, I can tell you I will not fall short."
Labour`s Ed Miliband, whose muted first year as opposition leader has been fired up by attacking Cameron on the scandal, has stopped short of demanding Cameron`s resignation.
But he asked during the debate: "Why doesn`t he do more than give a half-apology and provide the full apology now for hiring Mr Coulson and bringing him into the heart of Downing Street?"
Opposition members of parliament questioned the credibility of Cameron`s defence that Coulson had assured him when being hired in 2007 that, as editor of the News of the World, he knew nothing of the hacking of voicemails which had led to the paper`s royal correspondent being jailed earlier that year.
Coulson left Cameron`s office in January just before police reopened an investigation in which Coulson and his predecessor as editor, Rebekah Brooks, have been arrested and bailed.
Labour lawmakers also questioned Cameron about contacts with Murdoch and his staff, including his friendship with Brooks, who resigned as head of the British newspaper unit last week.
Before the debate, a poll by Reuters/Ipsos MORI showed Britons` satisfaction with Cameron had fallen to its lowest level since he entered office in May last year. Only 38 percent were happy with the way he was doing his job.
But Helen Cleary of Ipsos MORI cautioned: "We know from other scandals that public opinion tends to bounce back."
And she added: "Even now, after Ed Miliband’s boost from the scandal, Cameron is ahead ... on personal satisfaction ratings."
Cameron tried during the debate to move the political agenda away from the scandal, saying voters wanted him to concentrate on handling an economic crisis and other pressing matters.
As the rowdy session in the House of Commons continued, he also landed blows of his own by pointing out the close relations Miliband`s predecessors, Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, had maintained with Murdoch, who has been courted and feared by British leaders for four decades.
Referring to Brooks`s reported attendance at a gathering hosted by Brown`s wife at the prime minister`s official country residence in 2008, Cameron taunted the Labour benches: "I`ve never held a slumber party or seen her in her pyjamas."
He referred repeatedly to controversial former journalists hired by Labour, including another former employee of Murdoch`s News International, a former reporter for London`s Times, who is now a senior aide to Miliband.
"Cameron has suffered some reputational damage. There is no doubt about that," said Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warwick University. "But it is unlikely to escalate into a resignation issue unless something new and deeply damaging emerges."
"It is hard for Miliband to take a holier-than-thou attitude given the last Labour government was deeply involved with News International."
A day after Murdoch apologised to a parliamentary committee but denied personal responsibility for the affair, Cameron gave details of a judicial inquiry he has ordered into the scandal and wider issues it has raised over relationships among Britain`s media, police and political establishment.
POLICE UNDER FIRE
A key issue has been the failure of the police and the company to follow up on claims, after the jailing of the News of the World journalist in 2007, that phone-hacking and payments to police by the press were more widespread. Coulson quit Cameron`s office in January as police launched a new investigation.
Britain`s most senior policemen and the head of its counter-terrorism operations resigned this week over the affair.
A cross-party parliamentary committee published a report on Wednesday criticising both News International and the police.
"There has been a catalogue of failures by the Metropolitan Police, and deliberate attempts by News International to thwart the various investigations," said Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Home Affairs committee.
One Labour lawmaker accused Cameron, or at least his advisers, of ignoring concerns raised over Coulson`s appointment by aides to Queen Elizabeth, whose grandsons William and Harry were the targets of the hacking incident for which the News of the World`s royal correspondent was jailed four years ago.
A spokesman for Cameron denied the allegation.
The smouldering scandal exploded in the public consciousness on July 4, when the family of a schoolgirl abducted and murdered in 2002 said police had told them they believed someone from the paper had hacked in to the teenager`s voicemail, misleading detectives looking for her and giving her parents false hope.
Police say they are probing the hacking of messages of possibly 4,000 people, not just the rich, famous or powerful, but crime victims and families of soldiers killed in action.
The 80-year-old Murdoch, who was attacked by a protester with a foam pie during Tuesday`s committee hearing, sent a message to his staff that his company was taking steps to ensure that "serious problems never happen again".
"Those who have betrayed our trust must be held accountable under the law," he said in an email sent late on Tuesday.
Media Minister Jeremy Hunt said News International needed to explain how malpractice happened without Murdoch or his son James, a top News Corp executive, being told. They shut down the 168-year-old News of the World this month and pulled out of a bid to buy out other investors in pay-TV network BSkyB .
Shares in News Corp rose over 5.5 percent in New York on Tuesday, recovering some of their previous losses. Investors have speculated that the fallout from the scandal in Britain may hasten a handover of power in the company from the Murdoch family in a way that may streamline its global operations.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Wednesday the local arm of News Corp would have to answer "hard questions" after the phone-hacking in Britain.