Former British prime minister Gordon Brown last night strongly denied Rupert Murdoch’s claims that he had once declared war on the media empire.In evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Mr Murdoch said Mr Brown had phoned him after the front page of The Sun newspaper published the headline “Labour’s Lost It”, on a day in 2009 when Mr Brown was due to make an important speech.
Mr Murdoch said he told Mr Brown his newspapers would support a change of government at the upcoming election and that Mr Brown replied, “Well, your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative but to make war on your company.”
Mr Murdoch told the inquiry he said, “‘I’m sorry about that, Gordon. Thank you for calling.’ End of subject. I don’t think he was in a very balanced state of mind. I don’t know.”
But Mr Brown released a statement saying the two men had not spoken and that Mr Murdoch “was wholly wrong? The Sun declared for the Conservatives on 30 September 2009. I did not phone Mr Murdoch or meet him, or write to him about his decision.”I hope Mr Murdoch will have the good grace to correct his account.”As Mr Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, appeared for the first time before the inquiry into press standards and the relationships between proprietors and politicians, the shockwaves intensified from the hearing on Tuesday. Then, his son James discussed emails that appeared to show News International had routinely been leaked information from the office of Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt while Mr Hunt was overseeing the company’s bid to take over satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
In developments last night:- Mr Hunt’s special adviser stepped down, admitting he had gone too far in his dealings with News International.- Documents revealed Mr Hunt visited News Corp in the US while the company was deciding whether to bid for BSkyB.- Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond admitted he planned to lobby Mr Hunt to back the Murdoch bid only days after winning the support of the Scottish Sun for his election campaign
.Rupert Murdoch told the inquiry that after the alleged declaration of war, Mr Brown had gone on to make a “totally outrageous” claim “which he had to know was wrong” that The Sun had hacked the medical records of his sick child.
Mr Murdoch said Mrs Brown had been phoned before the story was published and told that the informant was a fellow parent at the same hospital.
He said he and Prime Minister David Cameron had not discussed Mr Cameron’s hiring of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, later arrested over phone hacking, as his director of communications in 2007. Mr Murdoch said the appointment had left him “just as surprised as everybody else”.
He agreed that Mr Cameron had dropped in to visit him on a yacht at the Greek island of Santorini in 2008 – he could not recall whether it was his own or his daughter’s yacht – but said Mr Cameron had wanted to meet him, not the other way around: “Politicians go out of their way to impress people in the press and I don’t remember discussing any heavy political things with him at all. They may have been some issues discussed passingly; it was not a long meeting.”
Mr Murdoch said he had never sought to use political influence for commercial advantage and had always decided editorial views on the basis of issues and candidates. It was a “complete myth” that his company ever had preferential treatment from politicians because of the power of his newspapers, he said.If he were driven purely by business priorities he would always have told his newspapers to support the Conservatives because they were always friendlier to big business, but he said it was also in his newspapers’ interests to attract and hold readers.
He denied being a major power behind the throne for former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and said of Tony Blair, “In the 10 years he was in power I never asked Mr Blair for anything.
“Mr Murdoch was also asked about reports of comments made about him by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. “‘You can do deals with him without ever saying a deal is done?”‘ asked Robert Jay, QC.
Mr Murdoch denied this: “I don’t understand what you’re saying but it isn’t true. Mr Keating is given to extravagant language.”Mr Jay asked about another quote: “‘The only thing he cares about is business and the only language he respects is strength’? Is that fair?”
“Certainly not,” Mr Murdoch said.
Meanwhile, Labour continued to demand the resignation of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. When Mr Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith resigned, he said in a statement that he had acted without the authority of the minister and that he had allowed the impression to be created of too close a relationship between News Corp and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
He said, “While it was part of my role to keep News Corporation informed through the BSkyB bid process, the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from [Mr Hunt]? I appreciate that my activities at times went too far.”But he insisted, as did Mr Hunt, that the process had been conducted scrupulously fairly.
Mr Hunt’s position was further endangered by revelations in official documents that he had spent five days in the US in 2009 holding meetings with News Corp at the same time Rupert and James Murdoch were first deciding whether to bid for Sky.
Almost immediately after Mr Hunt’s trip, James Murdoch visited Mr Cameron in London and privately told him that News Corp had agreed to switch support to the Conservatives in the coming election. Mr Hunt then became culture secretary in the victorious Tory Government.
In yet another response to James Murdoch’s day of evidence, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond admitted he planned to lobby Mr Hunt in favour of the Murdoch bid for BSkyB only days after the Scottish Sun promised it would back his election campaign.
A spokesman for Mr Salmond confirmed he had booked a call with Mr Hunt _ which did not take place _ two days after Mr Salmond had dinner with the editor of the Scottish Sun.Last year the paper backed Mr Salmond’s Scottish National Party for the first time in 20 years and it won an unprecedented landslide.
First published in The Age.