One lesson emerged clearly from James Murdoch’s testimony this morning before the Leveson inquiry into media ethics: If you want to get a politician’s attention, it’s best to use a very loud newspaper.
Mr. Murdoch, who was until recently chairman of the U.K. broadcaster BSkyB and the newspaper publisher News International, met with British Prime Minister David Cameron 12 times when he was opposition leader; he was “friendly” with the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and had numerous conversations with the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt.
That last relationship was particularly crucial: Mr. Hunt was the minister responsible for government oversight of the Murdoch family’s takeover bid for BSkyB. (The Murdochs controlled 39 per cent of the broadcaster and were aiming to buy the rest when the bid was stalled after last summer’s revelations about phone hacking at the now-defunct tabloid, the News of the World.)
Mr. Murdoch painted a cozy picture of press-and-political intimacy, perhaps unintentionally. He spoke of a dinner on Dec 23, 2010 where he had “a tiny side conversation” with Mr. Cameron about the BSkyB bid. The dinner took place at the house of Rebekah Brooks, then CEO of News International, and her husband, the race-horse trainer Charlie Brooks, who is Mr. Cameron’s old friend. Together, they form a power elite that is known as the “Chipping Norton set,” for the upmarket town near Oxford where many of the ruling cabal keep their horses, dogs and second homes.
But it was in a bar in the ritzy London neighbourhood of Mayfair where Mr. Murdoch played kingmaker, telling Mr. Cameron, then leader of the opposition, that the Sun – Britain’s best-selling newspaper and a crucial political player – was about to endorse his party in the upcoming general election.
Mr. Murdoch, generally unflappable and surrounding himself with a fortress of management-speak, bristled when the Leveson inquiry’s main lawyer, Robert Jay, suggested that the Murdochs’ media empire bought undue political influence. Mr. Jay claimed that Mr. Hunt, the culture minister, was a “cheerleader” for Murdoch ambitions, and as such earned glowing coverage in the Murdoch newspapers. (As well as the now-defunct News of the World, the family controls the Sun and Times in the U.K., and the Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the U.S; News Corp., where James Murdoch is deputy COO, also owns Fox News in the U.S. and Sky News in the U.K.)
Raising his voice for the first time, Mr. Murdoch was adamant that his newspapers don’t trade positive coverage for business advantage: “It’s not something I would ever link to a commercial transaction.” One newspaper writer tweeted that in the public gallery, Murdoch’s wife, hearing the allegations, said, “outrageous.”
Still, it wasn’t quite as vicious a mauling as the one Mr. Murdoch received in November, when he was accused of being a mob boss during his testimony before a British parliamentary committee investigating phone-hacking. (The scandal, which originated over claims that tabloid journalists illegally eavesdropped on thousands of phones, has now spread to include allegations of police corruption and bribery of public officials.)
Mr. Murdoch is appearing at the Leveson inquiry the day before his 81-year-old father, Rupert, begins his testimony.