PM's impartiality in doubt after Christmas date with Murdoch executive

 

David Cameron was yesterday accused of "tucking into turkey" with a senior News Corporation executive days after he intervened in the company's bid to take full control of BSkyB.

The Prime Minister went to the Oxfordshire home of Rebekah Brooks during the Christmas holiday, shortly after he stripped the Business Secretary Vince Cable of responsibility for ruling on the deal. (Mr Cable had been caught "declaring war" on the News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch.)

Mr Cameron faces questions over the appropriateness of the visit while News Corp faces a possibly lengthy competition inquiry into its attempt to buy BSkyB.

The visit came shortly after Mr Cameron passed the quasi-judicial responsibility for the decision to the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt – who had previously appeared to back the proposed take-over.

Mr Murdoch is currently in the UK on News Corp business. Usually such visits coincide with board meetings, Sky's annual results or the summer party of News Corp subsidiary News International.

This is not the case, however, this time – which has led to speculation that Mr Murdoch may be in London to finalise a deal with the Government over News Corp's attempt to buy the 60.9 per cent of BSkyB that it does not already own.

News Corp is understood to have already offered "concessions" to the Government over the deal. One possibility is that it might separate Sky News from BSkyB either by selling the 24-hour satellite news channel or "hiving" it off and giving it complete independence while continuing to fund it.

Yesterday Labour described the decision by Mr Cameron to visit Ms Brooks and her husband, the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, at their home near his own constituency property as "extraordinary".

The Shadow Culture Secretary Ivan Lewis told the House of Commons: "The Secretary of State for Business was stripped of his responsibilities for boasting he has declared war on Mr Murdoch. The Secretary of State [for Culture] is on the record as saying he sees no problem with the deal.

"And now the Prime Minister is found to be tucking into a turkey in the middle of this process with the chief executive of News International. What breathtaking arrogance and contempt for their constitutional responsibilities."

Downing Street said it would never comment on Mr Cameron's personal engagements. Officials there said he was taking no involvement at all in the BSkyB deal.

"They live near one another and it is no secret that they have met socially on occasions," said a Downing Street source. "But to suggest that this was anything to do with the BSkyB deal is ridiculous."

Mr Hunt was handed Ofcom's report of its probe into the bid on 31 December and he is expected to make a decision about whether to refer it to the Competition Commission before the end of the month.

"It is incredibly important that due process is followed at every stage," Mr Hunt told the Commons yesterday.

"We will publish exactly what we have done and who we have met at every stage of the process when I make my decision, in order for Parliament to be able to scrutinise that the process has been totally fair and totally impartial."

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