Downing Street and News International:

Murdochs were given secret defence briefings

Ministers held meetings with media mogul's people more than 60 times

The extraordinary access that Cabinet ministers granted Rupert Murdoch and his children was revealed for the first time yesterday, with more than two dozen private meetings between the family and senior members of the Government in the 15 months since David Cameron entered Downing Street.

In total, Cabinet ministers have had private meetings with Murdoch executives more than 60 times and, if social events such as receptions at party conferences are included, the figure is at least 107.

On two occasions, James Murdoch and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks were given confidential defence briefings on Afghanistan and Britain's strategic defence review by the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. A further briefing was held with Ms Brooks, Rupert Murdoch and the Sunday Times editor John Witherow.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has had 16 separate meetings since May 2010 with News International editors and executives, including two with the Murdochs within just a month of taking office. He also invited Elisabeth Murdoch as a guest to his 40th birthday party last month.

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, dined with Rupert Murdoch within days of the Government coming to power and, after being given quasi-judicial oversight for the Murdochs' £8bn attempted takeover of BSkyB, had two meetings with James Murdoch in which they discussed the takeover. Mr Hunt said last night that these were legitimate as part of the bid process.

But the minister who sees Rupert Murdoch the most frequently is the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, a former News International employee. Mr Gove has seen the mogul for breakfast, lunch or dinner on six occasions since last May. Overall, Mr Gove has had 12 meetings with Murdoch executives since becoming a minister.

The list, released by government departments yesterday evening, reinforces the impression of an unhealthily close relationship between the top echelons of News International and senior members of the Coalition Cabinet, which first became apparent when Mr Cameron released his list of contacts with news organisations a week ago. He revealed then that he had met News International executives on 26 occasions since entering Downing Street.

Senior executives and editors from News International have held private meetings with Cabinet ministers more than 60 times since last May.

Other newspaper groups and media organisations had significantly fewer meetings. Mr Osborne met with representatives of The Daily Telegraph group on six occasions and The Independent/London Evening Standard twice. Mr Hunt met Telegraph and Independent figures twice each and members of the BBC 11 times.

The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who was stripped of responsibility for ruling on whether the BSkyB bid should go ahead after boasting in December that he had "declared war on Rupert Murdoch", did not have as much contact as some of his colleagues. Mr Cable met the editor of The Times, James Harding, in December, although it is unclear whether this was before or after he was stripped of his responsibilities for the BSkyB bid.

The Prime Minister's chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, held a meeting shortly after the election with No 10's then communications director Andy Coulson, the former head of the Metropolitan Police Sir Paul Stephenson and Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of the News of the World and then an adviser to the Met. Both Mr Coulson and Mr Wallis have since been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking and Sir Paul resigned over his handling of the scandal.

Last night a spokesman for Mr Gove insisted that his meetings with the Murdochs were of a personal nature. "Michael worked for the BBC and News International and his wife works for News International now," he said. "He has known Rupert Murdoch for over a decade. He did not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs and isn't at all embarrassed about his meetings, most of which have been about education, which is his job."

A spokesman for Mr Fox said that the defence briefings given to the Murdochs covered a range of issues and were given because of the "interest in defence matters" shown by News International papers. He did not say who initiated the meetings.

The Chancellor had said he would be happy to talk about the meetings, but the list was released just after interviews he gave on GDP figures so he was not available for comment.

The Conservative Party co-chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, said the release of the information showed that, in contrast to Labour, the Government was being open about its dealings with the Murdochs. "This Government is delivering unprecedented transparency," she said. "Ed Miliband now needs to come clean. Where is his list of Shadow Cabinet media meetings?"

Watson to write book with Independent reporter

Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has done much to uncover the extent of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, is to write the "full behind-the-scenes story" with The Independent correspondent Martin Hickman. The publisher Penguin promised yesterday that the book would "describe in previously unpublished detail the nexus between News Corporation, the police and politicians, and will explain how the connections between them were unravelled".

The tenacious MP for West Bromwich East led the questioning of Rupert and James Murdoch and the former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks last week when they appeared before the House of Commons select committee for Culture, Media & Sport.

Hickman was named 2009 Journalist of the Year by the Foreign Press Association. Penguin said: "With unique information and access, their book will show what went wrong with some very prominent British institutions and will mark the moment when everything began to change." As yet untitled, it will be published later this year. The book is likely to be one of several documenting a scandal that has gone to the heart of British society.

Ian Burrell

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