Rupert Murdoch is a great man, says Michael Gove

 

The relationship between the press and politicians is not always in the public interest, Michael Gove said today.

The Education Secretary told the Leveson Inquiry some journalists and MPs could end up "relying upon each other for confidences which are not shared with the public at an appropriate time".

Mr Gove, a former journalist on The Times, also heaped praise on media mogul Rupert Murdoch, confirming he believed he was a "great man".

The Conservative said the idea the relationship between politician and the Press is "poisonous" is an overstatement" but it could be a "little rough edged".

He added: "It is also the case that there are some politicians and some journalists who develop a close relationship which may not be altogether in the public interest".

Mr Gove said proprietors and executives would "from time to time" attempt to influence ministers but "robust politicians" would listen politely but not bend.

He told the Inquiry he had never expressed a view on the News Corporation bid to take full control of BSkyB to his political colleagues.

Asked about Mr Murdoch, he described him as "one of the most significant figures of the last 50 years" and agreed he was a "force of nature, a phenomenon and a great man".

Mr Gove repeatedly denied discussing News Corp's bid for BSkyB with News International bosses and said he had "no recollection" of knowing about the proposed takeover before it became public.

"I haven't followed the the progress of the bid with the same interest as others," he told the inquiry.

"I imagine it would have been significant if someone had taken me into their confidence and I have absolutely no recollection of any conversation of any kind."

But he admitted discussing Andy Coulson's resignation as Downing Street's communications director with then News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks when the pair met socially.

Mr Coulson quit the role four years after he resigned as News of the World editor following the jailing of royal reporter Clive Goodman for hacking phones.

The Education Secretary said: "Both of us felt a degree of human sympathy for him having had to resign twice."

Mr Gove, whose wife Sarah Vine is a prominent Times journalist, said he maintained close friendships with reporters, but "tried to exercise appropriate judgment on all occasions".

He said he used a "set of common sense rules" in his contacts with journalists, adding: "As a minister I have to be very careful that human interaction and friendships don't lead me to make any judgment politically or with regard to the dispersal of information or public money that would embarrass the Government or put them in an invidious position."

Asked why the public apparently holds politicians and journalists in contempt, Mr Gove quipped: "'Twas ever thus", adding: "Human nature doesn't change much over time and politicians and journalists have always tended to be held in relatively low regard."

And he doubted the impact of newspapers at elections, believing their role was overstated.

"Disproportionate attention is paid to what newspapers may say, for example, during an election campaign," he said.

"I think the public are shrewder in making up their minds about which parties to support than is sometimes imagined."

Mr Gove was quizzed about Rupert Murdoch's plan to back a free school - those outside local authority control - in East London, which was later dropped.

He added: "I believed that Rupert Murdoch was only interested in establishing a school for purely philanthropic reasons."

The Education Secretary said he was "open minded" about free schools making a profit, unlike some of his Coalition colleagues.

Mr Gove and Lord Justice Leveson later became involved in a stand off over Press regulation and freedom of speech, with the Education Secretary warning against new laws governing the media.

Mr Gove said journalists were "exercising a precious liberty", adding: "I am concerned about any prior restraint and on their exercising of freedom of speech."

But Lord Justice Leveson told him: "Mr Gove, I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech, I really don't.

"But I am concerned that the effect of what you say might be that you are in fact taking the view that behaviour which everybody so far in this Inquiry has said is unacceptable, albeit not necessarily criminal, has to be accepted because of the right of freedom of speech."

The Cabinet minister replied: "I don't think any of us can accept that behaviour necessarily, but there are a variety of sanctions ... By definition, freedom of speech doesn't mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time."

But Lord Justice Leveson, who has heard from the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked by News of the World journalists, and from the mother and father of missing Madeleine McCann, hit back: "Don't you think that some of the evidence I have heard from at least some of those who have been subject to Press attention can be characterised as rather more than, 'Some people are going to be offended some of the time'?"

Mr Gove said: "I am sure that there are cases where journalists and others have behaved in ways which are deplorable."

But he added: "Some of us believe that before the case for regulation is made, the case for liberty needs to be asserted as well."

The Education Secretary said he was "unashamedly on the side of those who say we should think very carefully before legislation and regulation", adding: "The cry, 'Something must be done' often leads to people doing something which isn't always wise."

The free speech debate followed comments Mr Gove made at a lunch for political reporters in Westminster, where he suggested the Leveson Inquiry could have "a chilling affect" on the press.

Today, he described his remarks as "reflections I had been turning over in my mind for a wee while", and said allegations that journalists broke the law while chasing stories were disturbing.

But he added: "One of the questions is 'Are the existing laws sufficient to punish those who have been responsible for wrongdoing, to provide a suitable deterrent in the future?'."

He pointed out that phone hacking and bribing public officials are already crimes, saying: "I have a prior belief that we should use existing laws of the land and that individuals and institutions should be judged fairly on the basis of the existing laws of the land."

PA

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