Rupert Murdoch's Leveson objective was to bust myth that power gave him influence
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Wednesday 25 April 2012
Rupert Murdoch, one of the world’s most powerful and influential media bosses, came to the Leveson Inquiry with one objective: to bust the myth that his power gave him any influence.
An over-powerful Murdoch kingdom with subjects falling on their knees to deliver his every wish was the creation of his competitors, he claimed. Preferential treatment from leading politicians? A myth. If politicians went out of their way to impress him, they were wasting their expenses.
In testimony that sounded over-rehearsed and peppered with legally tutored phrases like “I neither sought to discuss” “I did not recall” and “I did not not ask”, Mr Murdoch portrayed himself as democracy’s servant and delivered a history lesson that contradicted most published accounts of his commercial and political enterprises.
There were a lot of things Rupert Murdoch couldn’t recall or remember, but he remembered the “outstanding” occasion he met JK Rowling at Chequers in June 2008 when he was the guest of Gordon and Sarah Brown. There were serious rumours at the time of Brown planning to hold a snap general election. Key to that decision would have been an insight into how the Murdoch papers might treat his campaign. Murdoch claimed in his statement he had made a “personal connection” with Brown, the two of them spending time discussing their family links to “a long line” of Presbyterian ministers. “He gave me a lovely gift, a book of his father’s sermons,” and added that he had “for some time contributed to Mrs Brown charity.” Yet despite the alleged closeness, Murdoch said he couldn’t remember any discussion between him and Brown on the election-that-never-was. “I’m sure he didn’t ask me. “
In the same year Sarah Brown held a “slumber party” at Chequers for influential women in the media. The gathering was dismissed in less-than-PC terms : “they were just a bunch of women complaining about their husbands, probably.”
In September 2009 Murdoch admitted that Brown “declared war” on his company. The former Sun editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, claimed Brown “roared down the phone at Rupert for 20 minutes”. Murdoch said there was no shouting, with the call ending simply “I’m sorry about that Gordon, thank you for calling.” So what did Brown’s war look like? “I don't think he was in a very balanced state of mind. He, frankly, he could have, I don't know, set up more commissions. God knows there's plenty of quangos and commissions around us now.”
Last night Mr Brown said that Murdoch’s account of their phone call was “wholly wrong”.
When the fall-out arrived it was full blown. Brown accused Murdoch of being at the head of “criminal organisation” claiming the Sun had hacked into his personal medical records. “It was a totally outrageous statement” said Murdoch. A letter from Sarah Brown to Rebekah Brooks, then chief executive of News International , thanking her for the “sensitivity and the way she [and News International ] handled the story [of their child’s time in hospital] was now, according to Murdoch “in the hands of the police.”
When Blair was elected Labour leader in 2004, Murdoch is recorded as saying he could “imagine backing” the young shadow minister. Within a short period, Blair was favourite to become the next prime minister. But not to Murdoch. “ Not to me. A lot of things can happen in politics in three years.” A private dinner between the two at the smart Mossiman’s restaurant recalled by Andrew Neil? Rupert couldn’t remember. Blair was apparently keen to tell Murdoch that under New Labour there would be “no onerous media ownership rules.” That would have sounded like sweet music to Murdoch and a memorable promise. “I have no memory of that, “ he said.
For historians of the Blair years, Rupert offered this “In ten years of his power, I never asked Mr Blair for anything. Nor indeed did I receive any favours.” He claimed to have met Blair only two or three times a year. The Iraq war and the controversies that followed Blair’s decision to by-pass the United Nations and side with the regime of George Bush was never discussed in their meetings. “I don't think Mr Blair would come to me for advice on a matter like that” adding “I mean he's surely above talking to a press proprietor about his foreign relations…”
The first myth Rupert Murdoch tried to shoot down yesterday was that he hadn’t forgiven David Cameron for setting up the Leveson Inquiry. “Untrue,” he said. He was asked if media abuses went further than the issue of phone hacking. Teasingly he said “Oh, they go further.” How further he may reveal today. Cameron first entered the Murdoch radar, he claimed, during one or two “family picnics at my -- at weekends at my daughter's house in the grounds of Blenheim Castle, where he came with his family, and my -- we were overrun by children, there were no politics…”
Then the meetings started. Murdoch’s memory wasn’t good on the frequency: there were lunches, breakfasts, attendance at the wedding of Rebekah and Charlie Brooks. And a breakfast meeting on the day the Sun decided to formally endorse Gordon Brown during Labour’s conference. “Was that the day we endorsed him?” The date seemed to surprise him.
For those reading too much into the switch from New Labour to Cameron’s rebranded Tories, Murdoch had this to tell the inquiry. “Mr Jay [the inquiry’s leading counsel] you keep inferring that endorsements were motivated by business motives, and if that had been the case, we would have endorsed the Tory Party in every election. It was always more pro business.” So there was no discussions with Cameron on the BBC, nothing on Ofcom, nothing on his appointment of the ex-News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, as his director of communications. Was he interested in Cameron’s views on any of this? “No.”
But the BBC was revealed as a raw nerve for Murdoch. “I'd been through that with previous prime ministers and it didn't matter what they said, they all hated the BBC and they all gave it whatever they wanted.”
Although Cameron was described as interrupting his family holiday in Turkey in 2008 to fly to Santorini on Murdoch’s son-in-law’s plane, and staying on his daughter’s yacht, for a meeting with Rupert, the significance of their one-to-one discussions was dismissed as unimportant. It was Cameron wanting to meet him, not the other way around. “I think I've explained that 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. “Cameron may have been wasting his time. “Mr Cameron might, of course, think stopping in Santorini would impress me. I don't know. “
David Cameron’s son Ivan, was born with a rare combination of cerebral palsy and a form of severe epilepsy called Ohtahara syndrome. He required round-the-clock care. He died in St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington aged six in February 2009. Murdoch appears to have given little attention to Ivan’s condition. He said “I was extremely impressed at the kindness and feeling he [Cameron] showed to his children and particularly to his retarded son.”
Weeks and months have been taken up by the Leveson Inquiry examining the definition and nature of privacy. For key lawyers at the core of the inquiry, privacy is their business. Murdoch however revealed his own views on privacy - which may have made its way into the judgement of his editors. “ I think people in public positions have public responsibilities, and I'll even include press proprietors in that. I don't think they're entitled to the same privacy as the ordinary men in the street. If we're going to have a transparent society, a transparent democracy, let's have everything out in the open.”
James Harding, editor of the Times
Although regarded as knowing everything that goes on inside his UK newspapers, Rupert Murdoch, revealed in his statement that he had only learned of the “Nightjack” email hacking case at The Times “until it arose in evidence before the inquiry. “ He described as “being appalled” at the way The Times lawyer, Alistair Brett, had mis-led Mr Justice Eeady when the hacking case came to court.
Mr Harding received a further rebuke from News Corp’s boss, saying he was “disappointed” The Times editor hadn’t bought the disc that contained all the details of MPs expenses.
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