UK minister gave News Corp help on merger
A PHONE-HACKING scandal that has rocked Rupert Murdochs media empire piled more pressure on British prime minister David Cameron yesterday with the revelation that one of his ministers gave News Corp executives highly sensitive details to help a controversial merger.
As the Leveson Inquiry on press ethics began to delve into the relationships between politicians and the media, with James Murdoch as a witness, the court heard that Jeremy Hunt, the culture minister, had had numerous secret contacts with James and his top London lobbyist.
Within minutes of the Leveson Inquiry’s closing for the day, opposition politicians were lining up to call for the resignation of Hunt, previously seen as a rising star in Conservative prime minister Cameron’s government.
“Now we know he was providing advice, guidance and privileged access to News Corporation, he was being a back channel for the Murdochs,” Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party, told Sky News.
“If he refuses to resign, the prime minister must show some leadership and fire him,” said Mr Miliband, who boosted his credibility last year by galvanising opposition to Mr Murdoch.
The inquiry was reluctantly ordered by Cameron last July as a phone-hacking scandal at Mr Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid spiralled out of control, forcing him to side against the media empire that had helped propel him into power a year earlier.
News Corp eventually dropped its $12 billion bid for the highly profitable BSkyB as public opposition to Mr Murdoch made it untenable. Mr Hunt told reporters he would make a statement after reading through all the evidence, and denied being a “cheerleader” for the Murdochs, as prosecutor Robert Jay suggested to James Murdoch at the inquiry yesterday. Mr Cameron’s spokesman sent a text message to Reuters saying the prime minister still had “full confidence” in Mr Hunt.
Yesterday’s revelations are a blow for Mr Cameron’s government, which has been dropping in opinion polls due to a series of blunders including a so-called “granny tax” on pensioners and a failed attempt to extradite a terror suspect.
Mr Hunt took over responsibility for deciding whether to approve the BSkyB bid after the minister previously in charge, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, was secretly recorded saying he had “declared war” on Mr Murdoch.
News Corp had already been lobbying Mr Hunt, a Conservative, as it tried to build political support for its long-held ambition to buy BSkyB, Britain’s dominant pay-TV operator, which Rupert Murdoch had helped build from the ground up.
“Hunt acted as a back channel for News Corp when Vince Cable had responsibility for the deal and then allowed extensive confidential and secret briefings to take place on what should have been a quasi-judicial process,” said Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP who had lobbied for a media inquiry.
Public opposition to the News Corp-BSkyB deal grew last year as the phone-hacking scandal escalated with the revelation that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, raising concerns about the extent of Murdoch’s media ownership.
Mr Murdoch’s News Corp owns the Times of London and Sunday Times national broadsheets, Britain’s top-selling tabloid the Sun, and 39 per cent of BSkyB, which has an influential 24-hour news channel.
At yesterday’s hearing, email correspondence between James Murdoch and lobbyist Frederic Michel was read out, showing the level of privileged access that Mr Murdoch’s company had to Hunt and others. – (Reuters)
MURDOCH'S MEETINGS: PRESS BARON AND POLITICAL LEADERS
These are the meetings James Murdoch held with senior British politicians disclosed by the Leveson Inquiry.
Meetings with David Cameron as leader of the UK opposition
June 26th, 2006Dinner at Brooks’s Club in London, at which the Conservative leader talked about his “vision for the country” to a group of business executives.
July 4th, 2006Dinner hosted by George Osborne and his wife Frances attended by Mr Murdoch, his wife Kathryn, Mr Cameron and his wife Samantha.
April 4th, 2007Dinner with Mrs Murdoch and Mrs Cameron.
January 22nd, 2007Breakfast at the Stafford Hotel in London initiated by Rupert Murdoch. They discussed Mr Cameron’s political views.
July 15th, 2008Dinner attended by Mr Murdoch and his wife, the Camerons and other couples. The conversation covered “general topical subjects, politics”.
October 29th, 2008Dinner with Mrs Murdoch, Mrs Cameron, William Hague and his wife Ffion.
May 5th, 2009Lunch also attended by Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie.
September 10th, 2009Drinks at The George. Mr Murdoch initiated the meeting to discuss The Sun’s proposed endorsement of the Conservative Party at the upcoming general election.
September 21st, 2009Dinner at Mr Murdoch’s house in London.
November 2nd, 2009Breakfast also attended by Mrs Brooks.
November 19th, 2009Dinner also attended by Mrs Brooks and others.
January 21st, 2010Dinner also attended by Mrs Brooks and Mr Osborne at Mr Murdoch’s house in London. The topic was politics.
Meetings with David Cameron as British prime minister
November 7th, 2010Lunch at the Prime Minister’s country retreat Chequers in Buckinghamshire with other guests.
December 23rd, 2010Dinner with the Camerons and several other couples hosted by Mr and Mrs Brooks. The discussion was “mostly social” but Mr Murdoch and Mr Cameron briefly mentioned Vince Cable’s removal from oversight of News Corp’s BSkyB takeover bid.
Contact with Tony Blair as prime minister
July 17th, 2004Lunch at Chequers with Mrs Murdoch and Cherie Blair. The discussion covered “general social conversation”.
October 7th, 2005Conference call which may have related to European Commission proposals for regulating broadcasting rights for English Premier League football.
Meetings with Gordon Brown as prime minister
March 10th, 2008Dinner at 10 Downing Street with Mrs Murdoch, Mr Brown’s wife Sarah and about 14 other people.
December 15th, 2008Dinner at 10 Downing Street.
January 19th, 2009Dinner at 10 Downing Street with Mrs Murdoch and Mrs Brown.