UK's Cameron changes tack in Murdoch horse row

Fri Mar 2, 2012 10:37am EST

* Cameron says rode horse with Murdoch editor's husband

* UK police gave the horse to Murdoch executive

* Murdoch papers, police under scrutiny at ethics inquiry

By Peter Griffiths

LONDON, March 2 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday he did ride a horse given by police to a Rupert Murdoch newspaper editor, seeking to end days of embarrassing confusion over an animal that has become an unlikely symbol of the phone hacking scandal.

After his aides had spent days dodging questions about the horse, Cameron apologised for the lack of clarity and confirmed that he had ridden it with the husband of Rebekah Brooks, who used to run Murdoch's UK newspaper business.

The questions have been awkward for Cameron, accused by the opposition of being too close to Murdoch's News Corp, the company at the centre of a public outcry over illegal phone hacking and payments to police.

He ordered an inquiry into media standards last year and a judge is taking evidence from scores of witnesses on the often close ties between the media, police and politicians.

Harriet Harman, the opposition Labour Party's deputy leader, accused Cameron of not being straight about how close he was to senior executives at News Corp. "It's time for him to come clean about the extent of this relationship," she said in a statement.

Brooks, who was arrested last year by police investigating wrongdoing at Murdoch's newspapers, lives close to Cameron in one of England's most expensive regions.

The image of Cameron riding horses with wealthy friends is uncomfortable for a leader who has sought to play down his wealth and privileged background, not least while his government seeks to implement deep public spending cuts.

A cartoon in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper showed a red-faced Cameron on all-fours in a field with a bridle in his mouth and Brooks and Murdoch sitting on his back.

A speech bubble from Cameron's mouth played on infamous comments from former U.S. President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair: "I did not have relations with that horse."

SADDLE

London's police force said this week that it had given Brooks one of its retired horses, called Raisa, to look after at her country home in Oxfordshire, northwest of London.

Apologising for the "confusing picture" painted over the past few days, Cameron said he rode before the 2010 election with Brooks' husband, Charlie Brooks, a race-horse trainer and friend from Eton College, one of Britain's top schools.

"Before the election, yes I did go riding with him," Cameron told a news conference in Brussels, where he was attending a European Union meeting on jobs and growth.

"He has a number of different horses and yes one of them was this former police horse Raisa which I did ride. I think I should probably conclude by saying I don't think I will be getting back into the saddle anytime soon."

On Wednesday, a Cameron aide laughed off questions about the animal. On Thursday, a spokeswoman said he had not ridden the horse. In a television interview, Cameron then said he had not ridden the horse since the 2010 election. On Thursday night, a spokesman finally said Cameron had "probably" gone for a ride on Raisa.

Cameron was also forced to defend his judgment after he hired former Murdoch editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary after Coulson quit the News of the World following the jailing of its royal reporter for phone hacking. Coulson resigned in January 2011.