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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Hollins details press intrusion

The Leveson Inquiry was taken back to the theme of press intrusion today with the evidence of Baroness Hollins, whose daughter Abigail Witchalls was stabbed and left paralysed in Surrey in 2005.

Hollins described the “huge” and “insensitive” press intrusion her family suffered after Abigail’s attack. “Things we spoke about in the [hospital] waiting room would be in the papers next day,” she said, adding that she does not know how news of Abigail’s pregnancy — which the stab victim discovered only after being admitted to hospital — got into the public domain.

She noted how journalists camping in her daughter’s garden were ordered by police to leave, as was a reporter who appeared at Abigail’s son’s sports day at school. The Inquiry was told that the press appeared at Hollins’ mother’s funeral expecting to see Abigail, who was in intensive care at the time, and had taken photographs of the family during a pilgrimage to Lourdes without their permission or knowledge.

“The intrusion seemed not really to have any sensitivity to the fact we were not seeking publicity,” Hollins said.

Hollins added that she contacted the PCC, but was told she needed the name of the journalists involved and article published to pursue a complaint.

“Our distress about press intrusion was not about one incident,” she said, “it was about hundreds of incidents.”

The Inquiry also heard from mobile phone networks O2, Vodafone and T-Mobile, and private investigator companies. Asked about the emergence of the phone hacking scandal, the head of the Institute of Professional Investigators, David Palmer, said it was “not altogether surprising” that the practice had been taking place. Tony Smith of the World Association of Professional Investigators said “we all knew it was going on”, though he said he was “amazed” at its extent.

It was also revealed today that the Commons home affairs select committee will question senior Metropolitan police officers and the Information Commissioner next week about the private investigator industry.

The Inquiry continues on Monday.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson