Today is all about Rupert, but let’s not forget yesterday’s session at the Leveson inquiry, in which the 81-year-old’s son and heir, James Murdoch, was slow-roasted for six hours in London’s High Court. The ramifications from that grilling are still rippling through UK parliament, with at least one beheading so far as Jeremy Hunt adviser Adam Smith resigning just as Rupert took the stand.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has hit back at Rupert’s testimony that the then prime minister threatened war on News International after learning that The Sun would not be endorsing him in the run up to the election.
Paul Barry has assessed the testimony of Sun King and son to compare whose testimony is set to create the most problems for News Corp, how their performances stacked up against each other, and ultimately, who revealed the most about the network of British power that News International has plugged into, and influenced, over the past six decades …
Assessing the entree, James Murdoch:
What we learnt from this starter was that the Murdochs are chummier with Britain’s Conservative government than anyone dared imagine. Prime Minister David Cameron now has some awkward questions to answer, and his Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt — who was in charge of adjudicating the Murdochs’ $12.5 billion BSkyB takeover deal — may be forced to resign. (His adviser Adam Smith did so last night just as Rupert was taking the stand.)
In bald and broad terms the charge is that the Murdochs used their raucous tabloid, the Sun, to drive Labour out of office in 2010, in the hope that Cameron’s Conservatives might return a bundle of favours: approve the BSkyB takeover; emasculate Britain’s media regulator, Ofcom; and cut funding to BSkyB’s big rival, the BBC.
The highlight of a day with many highlights was when a watered-down version of this proposition was put to James.
The poor boy looked affronted, and replied in high dudgeon, “That is absolutely not the case. The question of support of an individual newspaper for politicians one way or another is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction like this, nor would I expect that political support one way or another ever to translate into a minister behaving in an inappropriate way, ever. I simply wouldn’t do business that way.”
His wife Kathryn, sitting in the public gallery, was even more shocked at the suggestion, interjecting, “Outrageous”.
Surprisingly, neither of these remarks produced a laugh, despite the fact that this is how Rupert has effectively done business for 50 years. He did it with Margaret Thatcher and The Times in 1981 (when the bid was not referred to the Monopolies Commission), he did it with Tony Blair and cross-media laws in 2003 (which were neutered at the last minute on instructions from Downing Street), and he would have done it with BSkyB in July 2011, had it not been for The Guardian’s last-minute revelations about Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked by the News of the World.
Incidentally, it was recently revealed that Thatcher and Murdoch met secretly at Rupert’s request, before The Times deal was approved — something that Rupert has denied for the past three decades.
His son’s denial of any link between the BSkyB deal and the Sun’s support for the Tories was far more quickly buried in an avalanche of contrary evidence.
First, there was the long list of dinners, drinks, breakfasts and lunches at which James Murdoch and David Cameron met privately between 2006 and 2011 to talk about whether the Murdoch papers should support him, and on later occasions, about whether the BSkyB bid would go through.
One of the most significant meetings was a drinks session at the George Club in September 2009, when James told Cameron the Sun would back him for PM. Another was Christmas dinner at Rebekah Brooks’ house in 2010, (not to be confused with Christmas dinner there together in 2009), at which Murdoch agrees he and Cameron discussed the pending BSkyB bid.
Funnily, Cameron has previously all-but-denied having any such discussion at this lunch. Are we beginning to see a pattern here?
In all, Murdoch and Cameron broke bread together 10 times in three years, between January 2008 and December 2010, mostly at each other’s homes, or at the PM’s official country residence, Chequers, or at Brooks’ house in the Cotswolds, near where the Camerons live.
In addition, the PM met Rupert on seven occasions, including tea at Number 10 Downing Street, when the media mogul was asked to come through the back door, and on Rupert’s yacht in the Aegean, when Cameron was flown there on Matthew Freud’s private jet (Freud being Elisabeth Murdoch’s husband).
But even more damaging than this long list of private parleys is a newly revealed cache of emails — supplied to Leveson by News International — detailing discussions between the Murdochs’ lobbyist Frederic Michel and the office of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was planning to approve the BSkyB deal.
As Leveson’s leading counsel Robert Jay QC bluntly suggested, Hunt acted as a “cheerleader” for News, and kept James Murdoch fully informed of how the approval process was going.
When Hunt finally agreed to approve the bid on June 30 last year, subject to one last hurdle, Michel texted the minister’s adviser, Adam Smith, to say, “Just showed to Rupert! Great statement by the way”.
An hour later, he followed up with, “Think we are in a good place, no?”
Hunt’s adviser fired back, “Very, yes, Jeremy happy”.
Four days later, The Guardian broke the Milly Dowler story and the deal collapsed.
But the exchanges between News and the minister in January 2011 are even more revealing. On January 24, the day before Hunt made a statement supporting the BSkyB bid, (and two days before the Metropolitan Police announced the establishment of Operation Weeting, the new phone-hacking inquiry) Michel emailed Rupert.
Under the heading, “Confidential JH Statement”, he began, “Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow [although absolutely illegal]”.
The real story of Rupert Murdoch’s appearance before the Leveson inquiry in London’s High Court is the old fox is alive and kicking.
Rupert may be 81, but he’s still sharp, funny and a force. And he’s so much smarter and more convincing than any of the sons, daughters or American executives who might replace him.
It’s rare you get an opportunity to see a Murdoch on the rack, and it’s even rarer to see two of the family grilled on consecutive days. But it makes you understand why there’s a succession problem. None of Rupert’s potential heirs are in his class. Certainly not James, who looked stitched up and naïve, and appeared to have swallowed a business dictionary when he hit the stand on Tuesday. And certainly not Lachlan, whose appearances in the witness box over One.Tel coincided with a catastrophic loss of memory.
Rupert doesn’t bother with any of that. He talks like his tabloids — in short, direct sentences — and he leaves you in no doubt about what he’s thinking. “I’m afraid I don’t have much subtlety about me,” he told his interrogator, Robert Jay QC, at one point. “I’m not good at holding my tongue,” he offered at another.
Nor was there much wrong with his recall of key events. Sure, his memory failed when it suited him, but he was able to describe with extraordinary clarity the dates and processes by which his newspapers had backed Britain’s would-be prime ministers over the past 30 years. Typically, these involved him taking the decision; always he was at centre stage.
And centre stage is where the world’s most powerful media mogul is clearly most comfortable, facing his accusers and telling them they’re wrong. There was no squirming for Rupert. He was there to attack.
“I take a particularly strong pride in the fact that we have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers,” he proclaimed, in one of several big denials on offer.
“I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything,” was another mantra he kept repeating.
“I don’t know many politicians,” was a third, although perhaps because he only bothers with the ones that really matter …
The proposition Murdoch was asked to deny is that he backs politicians with his newspapers and gets favours in return, such as permission to take over The Times, or pledges from Tony Blair in 1997 that he wouldn’t tighten the cross-media laws (followed by watered-down laws six years later), and most recently, a nod and wink on the BSkyB merger from Cameron’s Conservatives.
Murdoch’s response to all this, as Robert Jay QC led him through a cavalcade of meetings with PMs and decisions that went his way, was to say it was all nonsense: he only ever talked to leaders like Tony Blair about the issues, such as Afghanistan, for example.
“I want to say, Mr Jay, that I, in 10 years of his power, never asked Mr Blair for anything. Nor indeed did I receive any favours. If you want to check that, I think you should call him.”
Rupert did offer that Blair had phoned him on his birthday, and we now know the ex-PM is godfather to daughter Grace, which was uncovered when Wendi Deng dropped the bombshell in an interview last year. But despite his self-confessed lack of subtlety and inability to hold his tongue, Rupert had somehow got through an entire decade without asking for the smallest thing.
Naturally, he could not recall Blair promising at a 1997 meeting that he would not tighten media laws, as the PM’s press secretary Alastair Campbell claimed in his diaries.
And he flat-out denied telling Andrew Neil, editor of his Sunday Times from 1984 to 1993, to go easy on Maggie T when she finally lost support, warning him, “We owe Thatcher a lot as a company.”
The story Rupert asked us to believe is that he met Britain’s leaders regularly, wrote nice things to their wives, admired their children, popped in for tea, lunch, dinner or a chat at least a couple of times a year, yet never did anything so base as to mention his commercial interests.
His most remarkable claim was that he never lobbied Thatcher over his 1981 bid for The Times, which she decided not to refer to the Monopolies & Mergers Commission. It was recently revealed that he lunched with her at the PM’s country house, Chequers, at his request, three weeks before the bid was approved.
So what did they talk about? He merely informed her that he was planning to purchase “a great iconic asset”, he claims.
So, had he asked her to wave the bid through? “I have never asked a prime minister for anything”, he repeated.
He gave the same answer in relation to Britain’s current prime minister, David Cameron, who flew to Santorini in the Aegean in 2008 to say g’day to Rupert on his yacht and ask for the mogul’s support. According to Murdoch, the would-be PM trekked all that way, but they never talked about politics. Nor did they when Cameron came to a family party at his daughter Elisabeth’s home in the grounds of Blenheim Palace. And they never, ever, talked about media policy, despite meeting privately on seven occasions between 2008 and 2010.
We may hear more on Rupert’s relations with Cameron tomorrow, when he will be back in the box. And it could be interesting. That huge cache of emails between News International and the office of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt — about which Rupert’s son James was questioned on Tuesday — suggests others at News were more than happy to do the asking, lobbying and bargaining for him.
Those explosive emails apart, there was no smoking gun, no real hard evidence, and no way of penetrating the mogul’s denials.
Occasionally, there was a small chink in his armour. For example, he denied lobbying Cameron about the BBC, but admitted raising the subject with a whole string of prime ministers, who had not listened to him. But mostly it was his word against the published memoirs of former players in the political game, plus of course the general implausibility of his claim that he never took advantage of the power he possessed.