The more we hear about the Murdochs’ cosy relationship with British politicians the more astonishing it becomes. And nowhere is the story more scandalous than in the attempt to take over BSkyB.
In June 2010, the Murdochs’ News Corp announced a $12.5 billion bid to take full ownership of the lucrative pay-TV operator, which is Britain’s most valuable media company. One year later, on June 30 2011, Britain’s Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt essentially said he was going to approve the bid.
We now know, thanks to yesterday’s hearings at the Leveson inquiry, that News’ chief lobbyist Fred Michel was in contact with the Culture Secretary’s special adviser Adam Smith around 1000 times in that 12-month period, through emails, text messages and phone calls. That’s an average of about three contacts a day.
In the same time, Smith had no contact at all with the bid’s opponents, which included the BBC, the Daily Mail and The Guardian. The bid only failed because the phone-hacking scandal went nuclear on July 4, 2011 when The Guardian revealed that News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
Not surprisingly, Smith’s (and Hunt’s) relationship with News turns out to have been extremely chummy.
For example, when Hunt told the House of Commons he planned to approve the bid, Michel texted Smith to say: “Just showed to Rupert! Great statement by the way”. An hour later, he inquired: “Think we are in a good place, no?” Smith fired back: “Very, yes, Jeremy happy”.
A few days earlier, Michel had emailed Rebekah Brooks, who ran Murdoch’s British papers to say Hunt wanted to avoid a public inquiry and was determined the bid should go ahead, despite a growing chorus of allegations of phone hacking. The email said News had been asked to “advise him (Hunt) privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning (on phone hacking)”. In other words, tell them how to hose the scandal down.
Michel and Hunt also had direct contacts and were clearly on first-name terms. In January 2011, Michel texted the man who was deciding the fate of the BSkyB bid: “Great to see you today. We should get little [names redacted] together in the future to socialise. Nearly born the same day at the same place! Warm regards, Fred.”
Hunt texted back: “Good to see you too. hope u understand why we have to have the long process. Let’s meet up when things are resolved. J.”
Two months later, Michel texted the minister again to say: “You were great at the Commons today. Hope all well. Warm regards, Fred.”
Hunt texted back: “Merci. Large drink tonight.”
Leveson also heard yesterday that Hunt was in favour of the BSkyB bid from the very beginning and that he had lobbied the PM, David Cameron, in November 2010 to say the government should support the bid, and that James Murdoch would be “furious” if they did not. At that stage, the bid’s fate was being decided by Business Secretary Vince Cable, who had refused to meet the Murdochs. Hunt was intervening against the advice of his officials and had taken a call from James Murdoch — also against official advice — without officials being present.
Despite his obvious bias in favour of the BSkyB bid, Hunt was entrusted with the decision — which he was supposed to review on a “quasi-judicial” basis — when Cable’s bias against the Murdochs was revealed in a sting by the Telegraph.
But Hunt’s simpering behaviour is just a small part of a much wider story, which began back in 2006 when the then-new Conservative leader Cameron started wooing the Murdochs assiduously to gain their support. A key part of this process was the meeting that took place on Rupert’s yacht Rosehearty off Santorini 2008, when Cameron was flown out in Matthew Freud’s private jet to see the tycoon (Freud being Elisabeth Murdoch’s husband).
A year and several meetings later, Cameron was told by James Murdoch over drinks at the George (a Mayfair club) that The Sun would be backing him in the next election. By this time, Cameron and Hunt were both writing opinion pieces on media policy that chimed in nicely with the Murdochs’ views: namely that the regulator OfCom had too much power, and the BBC had too much money.
Meanwhile, Britain’s would-be leader was meeting the Murdochs with increasing regularity, and continued to do so when they got into power.
Between January 2008 and December 2010, for example, Cameron broke bread with James Murdoch 10 times, mostly at each other’s homes, or at the PM’s official country residence, Chequers, or at Brooks’s house in the Cotswolds.
Between 2006 and 2011, he met Brooks (who was editor of The Sun and then CEO of News International) met Cameron on 20 occasions mostly for breakfast, lunch, dinner or drinks. In addition, the PM met Rupert Murdoch on seven occasions, including tea at No.10., when the media mogul was asked to come through the back door.
As for discussing the BSkyB bid, it is now admitted that Cameron and James Murdoch did this at a Christmas dinner in December 2010 at Brooks’s Cotswold barn. (Cameron did his best to deny this meeting and to deny having any discussions about BSkyB). Brooks also discussed the bid with Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, at a private lunch. What’s more, she stayed the weekend at Osborne’s official residence while the bid was under way.
Had it not been for Milly Dowler, all this schmoozing, lobbying and jawboning would have resulted in the $12.5 billion bid for BSkyB going through, and none of this would have ever come out.
Which makes you wonder: was Britain just one rogue state, or does this sort of thing happen everywhere, including Australia?