Lamb feared News Corp would "turn nasty"

Nick Clegg’s former Parliamentary Private Secretary has said News International threatened to “turn against” the coalition if its parent company News Corp’s £8bn bid for control of BSkyB were referred to Ofcom.

Quoting from a note of an October 2010 meeting with News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel, Norman Lamb MP said that News Corp would have “turned nasty” if business secretary Vince Cable, then responsible for handling the bid, referred it to the broadcast regulator.

Lamb said he took Michel’s comments to mean “very clearly that positive coverage he said they had given might change.”

The note, read out by Lamb and posted on the Inquiry website this afternoon, read:

0900 meeting Fred Michel News International. An extraordinary encounter. FM is very charming. He tells me News Int. papers will land on VC’s [Vince Cable] desk in next 2 weeks. They are certain there are no grounds for referral. They realise the political pressures. He wants things to run smoothly. They have been supportive of Coalition. But if it goes the wrong way he is  worried about the implications. It was brazen VC refers case to Ofcom – they turn nasty. Then he talked about AV – how Sun might help the debate – use of good graphics to get across case.

James M[urdoch] has met Nick [Clegg] – worth working on him to he could be receptive to case. Times will give it fair hearing.

So refer case and implication was clear. News Int turn against Coalition and AV.

In another note read to the Inquiry today, Lamb wrote that he had spoken to Nick Clegg about the meeting — among other things — noting that Clegg was “horrified” by it: “We will lose the only papers who have been positive,” it read.

Lamb said he has been thinking for some time whether to give this evidence to the Inquiry, saying he felt it necessary after Cable’s claim that “veiled threats” had been made to the Lib Dems connected with News Corp’s bid for full control of the satellite broadcaster.

The bid — which News Corp abandoned following the phone hacking scandal that emerged last summer — has become a key focus of the Inquiry as it examines close relations between the press and politicians. In December 2010 Cable’s responsibility for the bid was handed to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, following the revelation of the business secretary declaring “war” on News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch.

The high level of close contact between Hunt’s department and Michel over the course of the bid brought the government’s impartiality into question. Hunt’s adviser Adam Smith resigned in April after a series of emails between the department and News Corp revealed that the company was being given advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the bid.

Earlier today, the lawyer of the parents of a British schoolboy killed in a coach crash in Switzerland in March described the family’s distress at press intrusion, in particular the “unauthorised publication” of photographs of them by various newspapers.

Giles Crown told the Inquiry that a photograph of the grieving Bowles family had been taken outside the bereaved relatives’ hotel near Sierre, Switzerland, without their consent and printed in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. Photographers were banned from the property and told not to come within 20 metres of the hotel, Crown said.

“It is clear that the people in the photograph have no knowledge that they are being photographed,” he added.

Crown said that the Sun had published a quote from Sebastian Bowles’ account of the trip that had been posted on a blog set up for the pupils to communicate with their parents.

He also alleged that the MailOnline had also published photos from Sebastian’s father’s Facebook page, adding that he was certain his privacy settings had been set to the maximum level.

Edward Bowles later deactivated his Facebook account after he found that the photos, which Crown said were of a “private, personal and family nature”, had been obtained by the press.

Bowles contacted the Press Complaints Commission with the family’s concern over media intrusion and sent a letter on the family’s behalf to the PCC and various media outlets requesting they not be contacted.

The Daily Mail replied in a letter on 20 March, noting that the pictures taken from Facebook were publicly accessible, but that they had now been removed from the MailOnline version of the story.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow.

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Hunt: News of the World closure forced me to re-evaluate BSkyB bid

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt today told the Leveson Inquiry that the closure of the News of the World in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal had made him re-evaluate parent company News Corp’s bid for BSkyB.

Mr Hunt admitted that he had previously been in favour of the Murdoch takeover, but claimed he had been able to put personal bias aside when handed the “quasi-judicial” role of adjudicating on the bid, saying: “When I took charge of bid, my job was to ensure our democracy was safe.”

Addressing the resignation of his special adviser Adam Smith, Hunt blamed the “inappropriately” intimate language used by Smith on the volume of communication was subjected to by Murdoch lobbyist Frédéric Michel. However, he insisted Smith was “repeating stuff News International would already have known was my thinking”.

When asked about his views on the future of press regulation, Hunt said he would not wish to endanger free expression, but suggested that a future regulator may need to include digital and on-demand platforms as well as traditional publishing.

Hunt had been battling to save his political career following the revelation of close contact between his department and News Corp during the time of the BSkyB bid, leading to Smith’s resignation and pressure from Labour that the culture secretary had not been the “impartial arbiter” he was required to be.

Yet shortly after his appearance at the Inquiry, Downing Street announced David Cameron was satisfied Hunt had acted “properly” throughout the bid, and that he would not order an investigation into whether Hunt breached the ministerial code.

The Inquiry continues on Monday 11 June.

UPDATE 01/06: Labour said this morning it will call a vote in the House of Commons over Hunt’s conduct.

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Leveson Inquiry reveals Jeremy Hunt congratulated James Murdoch on BSkyB progress

Jeremy Hunt texted George Osborne shortly before he was handed control of News Corp’s £8 billion bid for full control of BSkyB, telling the chancellor he was “seriously worried” the government would “screw up” the bid.

In evidence disclosed to the Leveson Inquiry this morning, it was also revealed that the embattled culture secretary texted James Murdoch on the same day, congratulating him for receiving approval from the European Commission on the company’s bid.

This text message was sent just hours before the BBC revealed that business secretary Vince Cable — at that point in charge of adjudicating the bid — had told undercover Telegraph reporters he had “declared war” on News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, remarks that were seen as proof of bias. Cable was later stripped of his responsibility, which was passed over to Hunt and announced by Downing Street at around 6pm on 21 December 2010.

At 12:57pm on 21 December, Hunt texted James Murdoch: “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go”, shortly after the European Commission’s approval of the bid.

At 2:30pm the BBC published Cable’s comments, which Hunt said were discussed in a phone call with James Murdoch at 4pm.

Eight minutes later Hunt texted Osborne, noting he was “seriously worried we are going to screw this up” regarding the bid. In a second message to the chancellor, he noted that Murdoch was accusing Cable of “acute bias” over the bid.

Osborne later texted Hunt: “I hope you like our solution”, shortly before Downing Street’s announcement that Hunt had been given charge for the bid.

Such revelatory messages place further pressure on Leveson to call the chancellor to give evidence before the Inquiry.

Elsewhere in an intense morning of evidence, Hunt defended his handling of the bid, saying he was .”sympathetic” to it rather than “supportive” of it”, and repeated his defence that he did not feel it presented a “major plurality” issue.

Hunt confirmed he received legal advice in November 2010 urging him that it would be “unwise” to intervene. Yet, explaining a memo he sent to David Cameron in the same month, in which he told the PM that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, Hunt said he had concerns about a situation “where we had a significant merger in my sector” that was encountering obstacles, adding that he sought to be “absolutely proper” in his approach.

“I had an absolute duty to be across the most important issue in that industry,” Hunt said.

He also defended as “appropriate” his 16 November phone call with James Murdoch, despite having received legal advice to avoid becoming involved in News Corp’s bid. Hunt told the Inquiry he “heard what was on his [Murdoch’s] mind.”

“I probably gave him a sympathetic hearing but I probably said I couldn’t get involved in that decision because I had taken legal advice that I couldn’t,” Hunt said.

A meeting between the two was cancelled the day before, following the legal advice, with Hunt explaining he did not see the telephone call as a replacement. “My interpretation of the advice was that I should not involve myself in a quasi-judicial process that’s being run by another secretary of state [Cable].”

Discussing the high level of contact revealed by the Inquiry last month between Hunt’s former adviser Adam Smith and News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, Hunt said his department was not prepared for the “barrage” of messages from Michel.

“I doubt there’s a minister who worked more closely with a special adviser than I worked with Adam Smith,” Hunt said, explaining that Smith, who resigned in the wake of the revelations, was aware of his views but this did not mean he spoke for him.

He added that Smith was never given instructions on how to deal with News Corp. He repeatedly referred to the adviser as an “official point of contact” to answer questions on the bid process. He rejected counsel Robert Jay QC’s suggestion that the Michel-Smith contact — which included over 1,000 text messages over the course of the bid — was an “extra layer”.

The Labour party has since upped the volume on its calls for Hunt to resign, arguing he was not the “impartial arbiter” he was required to be.

Hunt has maintained he acted properly and within the ministerial code. David Cameron said last week he did not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”, but has said he will take action if evidence to the Inquiry suggests Hunt breached the code.

The Inquiry continues with further evidence from Hunt this afternoon.

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Vince Cable tells of "veiled threats" to Liberal Democrats

Business secretary Vince Cable has said he had heard of “veiled threats” to his party connected with News Corp’s bid for full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

“I had heard directly and indirectly that there had been veiled threats that my party would be done over in the News International press. I took those things seriously and I was very concerned,” Cable told the Leveson Inquiry this morning.

When asked about the source of the threats, Cable, who was initially in charge of adjudicating the bid, said he believed they came in conversations with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel but could not be absolutely certain.

In his witness statement Cable said he received reports that several of his Lib Dem colleagues were approached by News Corp representatives “in a way I judged to be inappropriate”.

“This added a sense of being under siege from a well-organised operation,” he added. “Coming from a party that had hitherto been at best ignored by News International, this was a new and somewhat unsettling experience.”

Cable was removed from his role in judging News Corp’s £8 billion bid for BSkyB, launched in June 2010, after he told two undercover Telegraph reporters in December of the same year that he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch. His comments led to accusations he was biased against the media mogul.

Cable said he had “offloaded pent-up feelings” in language he would not normally use, and described the situation outside his constituency surgery at the time as a “near-riot”.

Cable wrote in his witness statement that his references to “war on Murdoch” were “making the point, no doubt rather hyperbolically, that l had no intention of being intimidated. Clearly, I should not have volunteered my unprompted opinion, even in a private, confidential conversation in a constituency surgery. I subsequently apologised.”

He also wrote that he was “concerned about the unhealthy political influence of some newspaper proprietors including the Murdochs”, but added this was “not a view about the particular circumstances of the BSkyB takeover.”

Cable outlined that there were plurality problems presented by at 100 per cent ownership of BSkyB, namely that the number outlets under different owners would have been reduced and the possibility of new owners replacing management who would have influenced the choice of editors.

News Corp’s bid for the takeover was dropped last summer following the phone hacking scandal.

The Inquiry continues this afternoon.

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