Cameron denies deal with Murdoch


British prime minister David Cameron told the Leveson Inquiry today he never discussed government policy with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. 

Mr Cameron faced questions about accusations his government tailored policy to favour the News Corp chairman's business interests.

Mr Cameron's once cosy ties with key Murdoch executives mean he is under pressure to pull off a virtuoso performance before an inquiry which has sharpened the perception Britain has been run for years by an elite that fawned on Mr Murdoch.

The prime minister has been embarrassed by his association with the so called Chipping Norton set, a high-powered group that included Mr Cameron and Mr Murdoch's star editor Rebekah Brooks who live in and around the well-heeled Oxfordshire town.

The inquiry heard that during Mr Cameron’s four years and five months as Opposition leader he had 1,404 meetings or interviews with the media. Once in government, the number averaged at 13 a month, a fall of 50 per cent, he added.

Before entering No 10, the Conservative leader had 10 meetings with Rupert Murdoch and 15 with James Murdoch.

He met Ms Brooks 19 times, although that number did not necessarily include social engagements, Mr Cameron said. He denied suggestions any editor or proprietor had ever tried to pressure him into changing policies but said there would be “robust debates” on certain topics.

It emerged today that Ms Brooks sent a text message to Mr Cameron “rooting for him” ahead of a major speech. The  message from the former News International chief executive was among a batch ordered by the inquiry to be handed over by NI.

The text was read out by the inquiry’s counsel Robert Jay QC as he questioned Mr Cameron about his close friendship with the former Sun editor.

Sent on the eve of Mr Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2009, and just days after the Sun switched its support to his party from Labour, it said: “I’m so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we are in this together. Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!”

Asked to explain the message, Mr Cameron said: “The Sun had made this decision to back the Conservatives, to part company with Labour.

“The Sun wanted to make sure it was helping the Conservative Party put its best foot forward with the policies we were announcing, the speech I was making. That’s what that means,” he said.  “We were friends. But professionally, me as leader of the Conservative Party, her in newspapers, we were going to be pushing the same political agenda.”

Ms Brooks, with whose husband Mr Cameron went horse riding, is now charged with perverting the course of justice for interfering with a police investigation into phone hacking.

Mr Cameron also told the inquiry that former News of the World editor Andy Coulson would not have been hired as a communications director if any evidence of involvement in phone hacking had been revealed.

Mr Cameron said in a written statement to the inquiry that Mr Coulson had been asked “specifically” about phone hacking at the News of the World when he was editor. “He denied any knowledge of the hacking but said he took responsibility for what had happened on his watch,” said Mr Cameron in the statement. “I asked him specifically about his involvement.

“My question was always whether any new evidence had been disclosed to suggest any knowledge of hacking,” he said. “If such evidence had been revealed I would not have employed him.”

Mr Coulson was charged with perjury last month for remarks he made in court over the hacking scandal.

Earlier, Mr Cameon told the inquiry it was important not to “overdo” the influence wielded by newspapers. “In no way does winning the support of this newspaper or that newspaper guarantee an election victory,” he added.

Mr Cameron accepted the relationship between the press and politicians had been too close for 20 years. However, he admitted it was difficult for governments to reform the system because they had a vested interest. “We need to try to find a way for some independence to be brought to that. I think the regulatory system we have at the moment doesn’t work. We need to draw some boundaries but it is very difficult to do,” he said.

“If you take the expenses scandal, it was deeply painful for politicians but it was absolutely right that it was revealed. In the last 20 years, I think the relationship has not been right. I think it has been too close and I think we need to get it on a better footing.”

Mr Cameron told the inquiry that the advent of 24-hour news channels had made life more difficult for governments.

“We are in a permanent battle of issues being thrown at you hour by hour where responses are demanded incredibly quickly,” he said. “Politicians have to get out of the 24-hour news cycle to try to fight every hourly battle and face long-term issues and be prepared sometimes to take a hit on a story.”

Mr Cameron ordered the establishment of the Leveson inquiry into media ethics last July when News Corp was accused of hacking the phone of  murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler.

Mr Cameron is under fire for shielding culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, a fellow Conservative minister, who is accused by Labour of being far too close to News Corp while reviewing its bid for BSkyB.

Mr Hunt was meant to be an impartial overseer of the £8 billion bid for the pay-TV operator, but testimony by Mr Murdoch's executive son James at the Leveson inquiry appeared to show that Mr Hunt's office was in regular contact with News Corp and may have given it confidential information.

Mr Cameron's Lib Dem coalition partners abstained yesterday from a parliamentary vote on a motion calling for the prime minister to order an inquiry into Mr Hunt's actions, underscoring the divides in the coalition. Mr Hunt's special adviser resigned over the affair.

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