The Education Secretary Michael Gove is set to come under sustained questioning over the strength of his relationship with Rupert Murdoch when he appears before the Leveson inquiry into media standards tomorrow.
Mr Gove, more than any other member of the cabinet, is regarded as an ally of the media mogul and has met Mr Murdoch for breakfast, lunch or dinner on six occasions since entering government. Their relationship dates back more than 15 years to when Mr Gove joined The Times to work as a leader writer for the Murdoch title.
When News Corp controversially launched a Sunday edition of The Sun earlier this year, Mr Gove was one of the first to express his admiration. “Whenever anyone sets up a new newspaper – as Rupert Murdoch has with The Sun on Sunday – they should be applauded and not criticised.”
The Education Secretary is likely to face questioning over discussions to set up a “Murdoch Academy”, whereby it was proposed that the media owner would sponsor one of the Government’s flagship inner city schools in east London.
Mr Gove can also expect to be asked about his relationship with Joel Klein, the senior News Corp executive in charge of the company’s internal inquiry into matters relating to the phone hacking inquiry at the News of the World. When Mr Klein, an executive vice-president of News Corp, was hired by the company at the start of last year, he was tasked with expanding Mr Murdoch’s commercial education interests around the world.
Mr Klein was formerly head of New York’s Board of Education and Mr Gove sought his advice over his own plans to set up a network of independently run state-financed "free" schools in the UK. Mr Klein had been behind the setting-up of charter schools in the US – praised by Mr Gove for their contribution in raising standards in inner city districts of the US. Mr Gove wanted his “free” schools in Britain to be given the same freedom to run their own affairs and last year Mr Klein was guest speaker at a London conference which Mr Gove’s department set up to discuss the subject.
A Murdoch-sponsored academy has not materialised even though a visit to an academy was arranged for Mr Gove with a team of high ranking British News Corp executives, including Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief executive and James Harding, editor of The Times. Will Lewis, who is part of News Corp’s Management & Standards Committee investigating phone hacking and other alleged offences committed by News International staff, was also invited.
In total, Mr Gove has met 21 times with executives from Mr Murdoch’s News Corp since joining the cabinet. The reception he receives from Lord Justice Leveson is unlikely to be a warm one, given the Education Secretary’s comments about the inquiry in February, before he knew he was to become a witness.
Mr Gove attended a lunch club meeting of the parliamentary Press Gallery and told a reporter from the Daily Mail that he thought the Leveson inquiry was giving a misleading impression of the way the media operates with the result that it was damaging the freedom of the press. “The big picture is that there is a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from the debate around Leveson,” he said. “I think that there are laws already in place that we should respect and principles already in place that we should uphold that are central to ensuring that this country remains free.”
Tomorrow Lord Leveson and his chief inquisitor Robert Jay QC will have the opportunity to ask Mr Gove to explain himself.