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Enfeebled politicians are a danger to democracy, warns proprietor

Ministers cross line when they let press owners influence policy, says owner of Independent

Newspaper proprietors cross the line between a healthy relationship with politicians and one that "enfeebles" democracy when they seek to influence policy-making, Evgeny Lebedev, the proprietor of The Independent, told the Leveson Inquiry yesterday.

Mr Lebedev, who is chairman of the company that owns the Independent titles and the London Evening Standard, said his relationship with senior politicians was driven by interest in politics rather than any desire to exert influence, but added that evidence of a different dynamic would be heard by the media standards inquiry "over the next few days".

Rupert and James Murdoch are due to give evidence in front of Lord Justice Leveson this week with the media mogul's son, who has been criticised for his handling of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal while in charge of News International, due to begin his testimony today.

The opening day of this latest section of the public inquiry, which will deal with relations between newspaper owners and politicians, heard that interaction between the two groups is legitimate and should not be subject to formal recording because of the chilling effect it would have on frank discussions about potentially sensitive subjects.

But Mr Lebedev, who is Russian-born and took British citizenship in 2010, contrasted the "robust" nature of the British press with the political and proprietorial interference suffered by many papers in Russia. He added that there was a clear point at which the relationship between a proprietor and politicians in Britain also became unhealthy.

He said: "One of the biggest issues that the inquiry is looking at is the influence that newspaper proprietors are able to exert over politicians. I don't see a problem with proprietors and editors and politicians meeting. The problem is when proprietors start trying to exert influence."

Mr Lebedev, who described London Mayor Boris Johnson as a friend, and said he meets former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife "every so often", said he had never been asked by a politician for one of his papers to lend support to a particular party or policy, adding that the power of the press was over-estimated.

He said: "Politicians generally over-estimate the influence newspapers have on the political process. We are in danger of building a society where every institution and every element of democracy becomes too feeble. So politicians become too feeble; police become too feeble; the country becomes too feeble; if the press becomes too feeble, then what we get is the tyranny of consensus."

In evidence of the interaction between press barons and ministers, Aidan Barclay, the chairman of the Telegraph Media Group (TMG), which publishes The Daily Telegraph, revealed how he exchanges text messages with David Cameron.

Mr Barclay, the son of Telegraph co-owner Sir David Barclay, who has met Mr Cameron 12 times including at an informal dinner at the Prime Minister's Downing Street flat, said he had texted on economic subjects such as bank tax during the economic crisis.

In one text, Mr Barclay wrote: "David, did you ring me? I had a missed call from your mobile?" Mr Barclay, who said the texts were a way of ensuring his thoughts went direct to the Prime Minister "rather than get lost in the system", described how he also sent articles on economics to Mr Cameron.

Telegraph chief warns against over-regulation

Lord Justice Leveson was urged by the publisher of The Daily Telegraph not to over-regulate the newspaper industry yesterday.

Aidan Barclay, who chairs the company that publishes the Telegraph titles, told the Leveson Inquiry that a "relatively small number" of journalists had been accused of "indiscretions".

"I find it very difficult to volunteer for more regulation," Mr Barclay told the hearing. "The media industry employs about 250,000 people in this country. The indiscretions, or alleged indiscretions, involve a relatively small number of people. We don't want to destroy the industry through over-regulation. I am concerned that we don't go too far... I believe in self-regulation."

In a written witness statement, Mr Barclay warned against a "backlash" following allegations of phone hacking and payments to public officials.

He added: "Newspapers and their websites already operate under a burdensome body of law and, indeed, are competing with other media organisations in the digital arena that do not seem to be subject to UK domestic law."