LONDON -- Prime Minister David Cameron's largest public test began with a hasty return from an African trade mission. His staff had debated canceling the trip entirely, but decided this would give the appearance of being "besieged." The greater risk was appearing disconnected from the growing News of the World hacking scandal. So Cameron cut short his visit, worked on a statement to Parliament on the plane back to London and arrived late on Tuesday night.
Starting at 7:30 the next morning, Cameron took practice questions from his advisers. His speech to Parliament began before noon. Eventually, he fielded 163 minutes of questions from 136 members of Parliament. It was a grilling to which an American president would never consent -- analogous to a joint session speech, combined with a congressional investigation, both sprung on a moment's notice. But Cameron gave an assured performance -- a successful blend of contrition and defiance.
No prime minister, even tangentially, wants to be involved in a scandal that somehow involves Rupert Murdoch, a private investigator with a criminal past, the resignation of the head of the Metropolitan police, the voice mails of a murdered teenage girl, a suddenly deceased whistle-blower, an arrested newspaper editor and a lawsuit by Jude Law. Under these circumstances, no government could respond, "Move along. Nothing to see here."
But Cameron's role in this mess is tangential. This is mainly a scandal at the wild, ragged edges of the Murdoch media empire, involving the systematic sleaziness of a British tabloid, enabled by indifferent or complicit editors, who may have attempted to cover up wrongdoing. It has also become a major British police scandal, involving bribery and media leaks.
Cameron's direct exposure is his brief employment of Andrew Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, as his communications director. Coulson had resigned from the newspaper when one of his reporters was convicted of hacking. At the time the incident seemed isolated, so Cameron gave Coulson a second chance. Before being hired, Coulson made assurances that there was no broader scandal. The prime minister, his advisers tell me, is protected by a shield of due diligence. If Coulson lied to secure his job at No. 10 Downing Street, he also lied to police and parliamentary investigators of the hacking incident.