The former Deputy Prime John Prescott last night called on the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt to delay News Corporation’s takeover of BSkyB to give time to investigate whether it was a “fit and proper” company to take full control of the broadcaster.
Lord Prescott said News Corp’s admission that phone hacking had been widespread at the News of the World and not the work of one rogue reporter hadn’t been considered by Mr Hunt when he made his decision to allow the take-over to go ahead.
He added that it was now vital that a public inquiry was held to get to the bottom of the extent of phone hacking by News Corporation employees before any decision was made on BSkyB’s future.
“When the News of the World apologised for hacking Sienna Miller’s phone papers like The Independent and The Guardian reported it properly but it was tucked away in Murdoch’s Times so you’d hardly notice it,” he said.
“If they get hold BSkyB is he going to do the same thing on the television? We need a proper inquiry to establish whether Murdoch is a fit and proper person to run the company.”
Lord Prescott used a debate on media ownership regulations in the House of Lords to suggest that diversity and plurality were not the only tests which the Government needed to apply when deciding whether to allow the takeover to go ahead.
“If you want a healthy democracy and a healthy media, it is not simply diversity and plurality you need - we now need something more than that.
“We need an independent public inquiry. We need to know what the facts are. If you are in any doubt about that, read what the settlement on Sienna Miller said.
“It said we settle, we did wrong, we should not have printed it, we should not have paid for it. But how did they do it? The settlement means she will be told in private how the company did it.
“There is no open court situation exposing it and all the hypocrisy we get about super injunctions about our press who tell us we should have open courts and be told information, but when it comes to a criminal act they don't want an open court - they settle with money, they settle with power and they settle with an agreement not to tell the public how they did it.
“That is unacceptable, that is not a force and influence that creates a democratic society.”
Lord Prescott added: “This Government must now consider an independent public inquiry for the health of our own democracy, for the health of the media.
“What worries me is it (the hacking scandal) has polluted a number of institutions in this country in the process of that.
"The first is the Metropolitan Police who in the initial stages refused to accept even though they had the evidence that this has been going on and constantly for years said it was a rogue reporter, we now know that not to be true.
"Having told me personally that my phone messages had not been tapped at all, there was no evidence, the new inquiry comes along and tells me there were 44 occasions.
"You can't trust the police if they are producing misleading information, deliberately so."
He also criticised the role of the Press Complaints Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service and said the courts had been "polluted" by the process, as they had not received all the police information.
The result, he said, was that “there is something rotten in the state of England at present”.
But sources in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said they could not suddenly re-open the investigation into the BSkyB takeover to include whether News Corp was a fit and proper company even if it wanted to.
“If that was going to happen it would have had to been done at the start of the process,” they said. “We can’t suddenly re-open it now. If we did it would simply be thrown out by the courts.”
The department’s position appeared to be backed by Ivan Lewis, Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary. “The serious admissions of culpability by News International aren't relevant to the News Corp-BSkyB media plurality issue,” he said.
“However, the continued delays in Jeremy Hunt reaching a decision begs the question why he did not refer the deal to the Competition Commission in the first place”.