The scale of private links between David Cameron and News International was exposed for the first time last night, with the Prime Minister shown to have met Rupert Murdoch's executives on no fewer than 26 occasions in just over a year since he entered Downing Street.
Rebekah Brooks, who resigned yesterday as chief executive of Mr Murdoch's Wapping titles over the escalating scandal, is the only person Mr Cameron has invited twice to Chequers, a privilege not extended even to the most senior members of his Cabinet. James Murdoch, News Corp's chairmanin Europe and the man responsible for pushing through the BSkyB bid, was a guest at the Prime Minister's official country residence eight months ago. And the former NOTW editor Andy Coulson – who was arrested this week in connection with police corruption and phone hacking – was invited by Mr Cameron to spend a private weekend at Chequers as recently as March
No 10 bowed to pressure over Mr Cameron's handling of the phone-hacking scandal last night and released details of all his contacts with senior staff at the company since he became Prime Minister. Mr Cameron has held more than twice the number of meetings with Murdoch executives as he has with any other media organisation. There were two "social" meetings between Mr Cameron and Ms Brooks, one of which was also attended by James Murdoch, and in return they invited the Prime Minister to a succession of parties.
Mr Cameron and Ms Brooks, who are neighbours in West Oxfordshire, met over Christmas – including a get-together on Boxing Day – just days after Vince Cable was relieved of responsibility for deciding the fate of News Corp's BSkyB bid. Downing Street has always refused to discuss what they talked about, but officials insist that the subject of the BSkyB takeover was never raised.
While James Murdoch met Mr Cameron twice over the period, on both occasions he avoided the spotlight of Downing Street. That was not a qualm shared by his father, who was invited to visit Mr Cameron at Downing Street days after the general election.
The list does not include telephone conversations between Mr Cameron and editors and executives. Such a log could be potentially even more revealing as it could be compared with key decisions being made by the Government over the BSkyB deal and other major policy initiatives.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister, when asked about the Chequers hospitality extended to Mr Coulson, said: "The invitation was to thank him for all his work – it was in the capacity of a friend. He is a friend, he remains a friend." Downing Street insisted that the release of the documents signalled their intent to introduce transparency in the dealings between senior politicians and the media.
But the Labour MP Paul Farrelly, who will question the Murdochs as part of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee meeting on Tuesday, said the meetings demonstrated the unhealthy ties with the Murdoch organisation.
The document reveals that since May 2011 Mr Cameron had 15 private meetings with News International executives and editors.
In addition he attended three parties held by News International in the past 14 months and attended five events organised by the company. In contrast he met executives from Associated Newspapers, which owns the Daily Mail, only four times, Guardian Newspapers twice, and The Independent and Standard three times. One of those meetings was with the proprietor of The Independent, Evgeny Lebedev.
After News International, the most meetings took place with the Telegraph group, who met Mr Cameron seven times since May. Nick Clegg also released a list of his meetings with newspaper proprietors and editors last night. It showed he had met Mr Lebedev four times since last May. At News International, Mr Clegg met Ms Brooks twice and Mr Murdoch once.
Legal chief bows out with a threat
*A former senior legal manager at News International has threatened to speak out against his former employers if they "screw" him. Tom Crone, who left the company on Wednesday and has intimate knowledge of the company, said that while he did not intend to say anything "explosive," that might change "if they completely screw me over".