Rupert Murdoch sought Europe policy change, Sir John Major tells Leveson Inquiry

 

Former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major today told an inquiry into press standards that media tycoon Rupert Murdoch asked him to change policy on Europe.

Mr Murdoch - owner of The Sun and The Times - warned that without change his newspapers would not support the then Conservative Government, Sir John told the Leveson Inquiry.

Sir John said the conversation took place during a dinner in February 1997 - a few months before Labour defeated the Conservatives at an election.

"Mr Murdoch said he really didn't like our European policies," Sir John told inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson. "That was no surprise to me."

Sir John added: "He wished me to change our European policies. If we couldn't change our European policies his papers could not, would not support our Conservative Government.

"As I recall he used the word 'we' when referring to his newspapers. He didn't make the usual nod to editorial independence."

Sir John told the inquiry: "There was no question of me changing our policies."

In April, Mr Murdoch told the Leveson Inquiry: "I have never asked a prime minister for anything."

He added: "If any politician wanted my opinions on major matters, they only had to read the editorials in The Sun."

Mr Major told the inquiry today that he had dinner with Mr Murdoch on February 2 1997.

"Just before the 1997 election it was suggested to me I ought to try to make some effort to get closer to the Murdoch papers," he said. "I agreed I would invite Mr Murdoch to dinner."

He said he thought Mr Murdoch was "edging towards" a referendum on leaving the European Union after raising the European policy issue.

Sir John, Conservative prime minister between 1990 and 1997, said the "matter" was not pursued.

He said the discussion was one he was unlikely to forget.

"It is not often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says to a prime minister 'I would like you to change your policy or my organisation cannot support you'," Sir John added.

"It is unlikely to be something I would have forgotten."

Sir John said he met Mr Murdoch three times during his premiership - in 1992, 1993 and 1997.

Sir John told the inquiry he believed the way the Press dealt with the "back to basics" scandals was unfair.

He read out a section of the original speech, made to the Conservative Party conference in 1993, which called for children to be given the best teaching, for British industry to be the best and for public services to be of a high standard.

"It wasn't a puritanical moral crusade at any time," he said.

He said a number of politicians had been "hurt" because their misdemeanours had been "tied to hypocrisy" following the speech.

One of the most high-profile revelations was an expose soon after the address that the then environment minister Tim Yeo had fathered an illegitimate child by Conservative councillor Julia Stent.

"It was a totally false position from the start," Sir John added.

He told the inquiry his former political foe, Neil Kinnock, had been unfairly portrayed in the Press while Labour leader.

"The Neil Kinnock I knew was very honest, very straightforward.

"If I met him privately, it stayed private. If he gave me his word, he kept his word.

"I found him very straightforward to deal with and, in my judgment, a much more considerable person than he was portrayed as being in the media I had seen before I came to know him."

Sir John criticised News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch, as well as parts of his media empire.

"I was not an especial admirer of Mr Murdoch's activities as a proprietor. I did admire his enormous skill as a businessman," he said.

"I do think parts of his media empire have lowered the general quality of the British media.

"I think that's a loss. I think it's evident which newspaper I'm referring to.

"I think they have lowered the tone."

He described the "sheer scale" of the influence Mr Murdoch is believed to have as "an unattractive facet in British national life".

He said: "It does seem to me an oddity in a nation that prides itself on one man, one vote, we have one man who can't vote with a large collection of newspapers and a large share of the electronic media outlet."

The inquiry heard of instances in which the privacy of Sir John and his family had been invaded by the Press, including Mr Murdoch's titles.

In one episode, he said, he was rung and told his son's girlfriend required emergency surgery after being in an accident but that the hospital needed to know first of all whether she was pregnant or not.

His son's girlfriend, however, had been in no such accident, he said.

On another occasion, his son was followed by a motorcycling News of the World photographer who had been instructed to pursue the young man until he got a story, the hearing was told.

In a third instance, Sir John and his wife went on holiday to Portugal, only to find on arrival that someone from The Sun had got there first and "either talked or bribed their way into the holiday home", rearranged the furniture and taken photographs, he said.

Sir John's wife rang then-editor Kelvin MacKenzie but was told she and her husband had "no right to any privacy", the inquiry heard.

"After further exchanges I believe he hung up on her," Sir John added.

The former prime minister expressed support for media plurality and called on Parliament to set a limit on the percentage of written press and electronic media one individual or company can own.

This limit on cross-media ownership should be in the 15% to 20% bracket, he suggested.

He also called for newspapers to be punished for doctoring photographs by being forced to print the picture as they had published it alongside the original photograph and explain to their readers why they had edited part of it out.

The suggestion follows a 1997 incident Sir John outlined to the inquiry, in which a photo of himself on a beach tossing a can to his wife to put in a rubbish bag found its way into a newspaper.

His wife was cut out of the picture and, he said, the headline accompanying it read: "Former prime minister going back to private life as a litter lout."

But any recommendations that emerged from Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry would have to have the backing of all the major parties, Sir John stressed, and would be threatened if they were opposed by politicians "seeking to court the favour of an important media baron who may not like what is proposed".

PA

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