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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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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Jeremy Hunt and Tony Blair to appear at Leveson Inquiry

Next week is set to be one of the most gripping yet in the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Monday has been reserved for former prime minister Tony Blair, who will likely be questioned about his close relationship with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose tabloid the Sun famously switched its long-standing Conservative allegiance to back the Labour party ahead of the 1997 general election.

Business secretary Vince Cable is scheduled to appear on Wednesday. It is likely he will be quizzed about News Corp’s £8bn bid for the takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, particularly his admission that he had “declared war” on the Murdoch-owned company, which led to his being stripped of responsibility for the bid.

But the highlight will surely come from Thursday’s sole witness, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is fighting for his political life after the revelation of a November 2010 memo he sent to David Cameron in support of News Corp’s £8bn bid for control of the satellite broadcaster one month before he was handed the task of adjudicating the bid.

In the memo Hunt emphasised to Cameron that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, and that Cable’s decision to refer the bid to regulator Ofcom could leave the government “on the wrong side of media policy”.

The memo has further weakened Hunt’s grip on power, already in doubt after last month’s revelations that his department gave News Corp advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the BSkyB bid. Evidence shown to the Inquiry yesterday during News Corp lobbyist Frédéric Michel‘s appearance showed over than 1000 text messages had been sent between the corporation and Hunt’s department, along with 191 phone calls and 158 emails.

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, while David Cameron said today he does not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”.

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Rupert Murdoch admits News of the World phone-hacking cover-up

In a second day of testimony before the Leveson Inquiry, Rupert Murdoch admitted that “one or two strong characters” were responsible for a cover-up of the phone hacking scandal at News International.

The News Corp chairman and chief executive explained to the court that he was “misinformed” and “shielded” from events that were taking place at the paper. Murdoch pointed the finger at “a clever lawyer”, who forbade people from reporting to News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks or chairman James Murdoch.

Despite the acknowledgement of the cover-up of the “cancer” that was prevalent in News International, Murdoch stressed to the court that the senior management of News Corp were not involved. He said:

“There was no attempt, at my level, or several levels below me to cover it up. We set up inquiry after inquiry. We employed legal firm after legal firm and perhaps we relied too much on the conclusions of the police.”

He added that when presented with information relating to a Guardian article in 2009 detailing unethical practices at the News of the World, the police said that the article was wrong. He said: “We chose to take word of police over guardian. We rested on that until beginning of 2011.”

After explaining that Colin Myler was hired as the editor of News of the World in 2007 to find out “what the hell was going on” in the newsroom, Murdoch admitted that he should have taken personal responsibility for ensuring that the brief was completed, and not delegated the duty to Les Hinton.

Murdoch also described his disbelief that law firm Harbottle and Lewis did not alert Rebekah Brooks that the problem was far more widespread than one rogue reporter: “I cannot understand a law firm reading that, and not ringing the chief executive of a company and saying ‘hey, you’ve got some really big problems’.”

The media mogul told the court that he had failed with now defunct News of the World. He said: “I am guilty of not having paid enough attention to News of the World, probably the whole time we owned it. It was an omission by me, and all I can do is apologise to a lot of people.”

Describing himself as “greatly distressed” by the closure of the News of the World, Murdoch admitted that the news paper and the journalistic practices operating within it were an “aberration”.

When asked by Jay why he closed the tabloid newspaper, rather than toughing it out, Murdoch told the court he “panicked”, but said he was glad he took that decision.

Murdoch explained “when the Milly Dowler situation was first given huge publicity, all the newspapers took it as the chance to make a really national scandal. You could feel the blast coming in the window almost.”

He added: “I’m sorry I didn’t close it years before and put a Sunday Sun in,” and described the “whole business” as “a serious blot on my reputation.”

Murdoch told the court he felt in hindsight should have had a one-on-one with Clive Goodman to establish if he was telling the truth that phone hacking was more widespread in the paper. Murdoch told the court he should have “thrown all the damn lawyers out” and cross examined Goodman. He added that if he decided Goodman was telling the truth he “would have torn the place apart, and we wouldn’t be here today.”

Turning to the controversial privacy case of ex-Formula One chief Max Mosley and Neville Thurlbeck’s blackmail of women involved in the case, Jay asked Murdoch if he really felt this kind of behaviour wasn’t something to worry about.

Murdoch replied: “A journalist doing a favour for someone, and someone doing a favour back is an every day occurrence.”

Leveson told Murdoch he considered that approach “somewhat disturbing,” asking the media proprietor to tell him if he believed this type of behaviour was seen as justifiable and acceptable common practice in the industry.

Murdoch replied: “It’s a common thing in life, way beyond journalism, for people to say I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. This seems to go beyond that.”

Seeing an opportunity to challenge continual assurances that Murdoch did not have any inappropriate relationships with politicians, Jay suggested it was interesting that “you scratch my back” was a common attitude, but not one Murdoch held with regards to politicians.

Referring to the BSkyB bid which caused so much controversy earlier in the week, Murdoch told the court he had never met, nor dealt with Jeremy Hunt.

When asked if he and his son James had discussed the replacement of Vince Cable with Jeremy Hunt, Murdoch told the court he didn’t believe they did. Following Hunt’s appointment to the bid, Murdoch denied that James Murdoch had said “we’ve got someone better now,” but told the court “we couldn’t have had anyone worse”.

Asked by Jay if he believed the bid was derailed as a result of the revelations that the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked, Murdoch said he was unsure if it was related to the “Milly Dowler misfortune” but that he did believe it was as a result of the hacking scandal.

The inquiry will continue on 7 May

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