THE media magnate Rupert Murdoch last night agreed under questioning at the Leveson inquiry that his newspapers had endorsed Tony Blair’s bid to be prime minister after Mr Blair had assured him media regulation would not be onerous under a Labour government.
He agreed that The Sun had endorsed Mr Blair the day after an article was published in which Mr Blair took a euro sceptic view that chimed with Mr Murdoch’s dislike of the euro.
Robert Jay, QC, asked Mr Murdoch: “You had extracted as much as you could from Mr Blair in terms of policy promises. He had gone a considerable distance in your direction, you assumed he had gone as far as he was going to go and you endorsed him?”
“I think so,” Mr Murdoch said. “I don’t think this all followed in this way so logically, but yes.”
Mr Murdoch also agreed that he had told Mr Blair: “If our flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines, very, very carefully.”
But Mr Murdoch denied a report that, while no deal was made about support from The Sun in return for Mr Murdoch’s media empire being left untouched, the two had an implicit understanding.
“That’s not true,” Mr Murdoch said. If there had been such an understanding, Mr Blair “certainly didn’t keep to it because he appointed [the media regulator] Ofcom with wide powers to interfere with us in every way.”
The Leveson inquiry into media ethics is examining the relationship between media proprietors and politicians.
Evidence on Tuesday from Mr Murdoch’s son James suggested that the Culture Minister, Jeremy Hunt, had leaked information to James Murdoch in 2010-11 during the News bid to take over the satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Last night Mr Hunt was resisting demands that he resign over apparent breaches of the ministerial code, but his adviser, Adam Smith, who had been involved in the unofficial email exchanges with News, did step down. He said in a statement: “I appreciate that my activities at times went too far.”
Lord Justice Leveson told the inquiry when it opened last night that it was important the email exchange not be judged until all sides had been heard.
In his evidence Rupert Murdoch, who is the chairman and chief executive of News Corp, became testy about what he saw as “sinister inferences” in the questioning about his relationships with politicians.
He beat his hands on a bench to emphasise his words as he said: “I, in 10 years he was in power, never asked Mr Blair for anything, nor did I receive any favours.”
Mr Jay said the relationship between a sophisticated politician and the proprietor would be rather more subtle than that. Mr Murdoch said: “I’m afraid I don’t have much subtlety about me.”
Mr Murdoch denied he was the power behind the throne of the Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher but agreed that he was politically sympathetic to her and to the former US president Ronald Reagan.
Questioned about a lunch he had had with the then British prime minister in 1981, he denied its purpose had been to show Mrs Thatcher he was “on the same page” as her politically, or that the tacit understanding was that she would then help him with his bid to buy the Times newspapers.
“No, I didn’t expect any help from her, nor did I ask for anything,” Mr Murdoch said. He denied he had wanted the lunch because he was concerned the bid might be delayed if it were referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission: “That didn’t worry me in the least.”
Mr Murdoch was asked about a report that he had told an editor on The Sunday Times : “We owe Thatcher a lot as a company. Don’t go overboard in your attacks on her.”
Mr Murdoch said he had no memory of the conversation. Did he say it? “I don’t think so.”
Mr Murdoch said he had strongly disapproved of a Sun front page in 1992 that claimed credit for John Major’s election win with the headline: “It was the Sun wot won it!” He said he gave the editor “a hell of a bollocking” over it.
Mr Jay asked whether he disliked it because it suggested newspapers were powerful and anti-democratic. “Anti-democratic is too strong a word,” Mr Murdoch said. “It was tasteless and wrong for us. We don’t have that sort of power.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.