Government officials last night questioned the "unusual" private defence briefings Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Defence, has given to Rupert and James Murdoch – briefings which were in stark contrast to the practice at the end of the previous government.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed that on three occasions since the Coalition came to power in May 2010, members of the Murdoch family have been given "defence briefings" by Dr Fox and senior military officials.
The meetings took place in August last year and in March and June this year. An MoD spokesman refused to go into detail of what was discussed but it is thought issues included Afghanistan and the Strategic Defence Review. The MoD also declined to say who asked for the briefings. The only other non-journalist from a media organisation to receive such a briefing was Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group.
Last night Bob Ainsworth, the previous secretary of state for defence, confirmed that no similar meetings had taken place when he was in office; nor had the Murdochs asked for them. "This is not something which I did," Mr Ainsworth said. Political advisers who worked in the department at the time of the Iraq war said they were unaware of any such briefings then as well. A Whitehall source said there were concerns within the MoD about a Defence Secretary giving private briefings to media proprietors. "This is not surprising to anyone who works here," the source said. "Normally a minister would take advice [from civil servants] on whether it was appropriate to discuss policy with someone from outside, and what they could discuss. But Fox's special advisers very seldom take advice on that – normally you just find out after the meeting has happened. This is a classic case."
The source added there was a difference between briefing working journalists on the background detail of policy issues, and briefing the owners of multinational media groups.
Meanwhile Lord Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, said prosecutors would have taken "firm" action five years ago if they had been shown documents suggesting the News of the World (NOTW)hacked into Milly Dowler's phone. The Independent revealed on Tuesday that Lord Macdonald, who now advises News International, had been made aware of evidence suggesting NOTW hacked a "vast array" of phones.
Yesterday in a letter to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Lord Macdonald said he believed the CPS was not shown 11,000 pages of documents seized from private investigator Glenn Mulcaire during the original police inquiry. Lord Macdonald wrote: "I am not clear whether this included material suggesting that Ms Milly Dowler's phone was hacked after her murder, or that the privacy of relatives of the victims of the 7/7 and of Britain's war dead may have been outrageously abused. I can only say that if prosecutors had seen any of this material in 2006, I am confident that firm and [appropriate] action would have followed."
Scotland Yard and the CPS have been criticised for not widening the scope of their original inquiry beyond Mulcaire and ex-NOTW royal editor Clive Goodman, who were both jailed for phone hacking in January 2007.
Lord Macdonald criticised Scotland Yard's failure to inform all the potential victims of phone hacking. "I understand it is an uncontested matter of record that police assured the CPS in 2006... they would contact all those potential victims... It is obviously extremely unfortunate this... did not... occur."