Two of David Cameron’s most senior and trusted advisors were having back door text chats with News Corp’s chief lobbyist at the height of the Milly Dowler scandal, it emerged tonight.
Gabby Bertin, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, exchanged numerous messages with Fred Michel in the days after true extent of phone hacking at the News of The World became apparent.
She also contacted the then chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks to offer her support and was given early warning of the decision to close the News of the World.
At the same time Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, was also in contact with Mr Michel and the pair met for dinner at a “discreet location” the day after the Dowler revelations came to light.
The text messages also show that there were a significant number of – up till now undisclosed - telephone conversations between Downing Street and News Corp as the extent of the scandal became apparent.
The texts and conversations are embarrassing to Mr Cameron as they show the levels and closeness of the contact between his aides and News Corp at a time when he was publically condemning the paper.
At Prime Minister’s Questions the day after the scandal broke Mr Cameron told the House of Commons that everyone at News International had to “ask themselves some pretty searching questions” and said he would support a public inquiry into the actions of the News of the World.
But just a few hours later Ms Bertin was texting Mr Michel saying: “Another hard core day. X”.
He replies: “Yes....mon dieu....incredible. DC (David Cameron) was very good at PMQ. We need to get through this.”
The following day before the announcement that the News of the World was to close Mr Michel sends Ms Bertin a message saying: “I do need to speak to you in 1 hour. very important. Our “last call”. Xx”
She texts back: “Ok x”.
The texts also reveal that Mr Bertin had got in touch with Ms Brooks to offer her sympathy on the day the allegations broke.
Mr Michel writes the following morning: “Thank for your messages to Rebekah last night xxxx.”
At the same time Mr Oliver is also in contact with Mr Michel and arranging a private dinner between him, Mr Michel and Will Lewis – who was on the committee looking into the phone hacking allegations.
Shortly after 9 am in the morning of 6 July 2011 he texts: “Looking forward to tonight. Is location discreet?”
Mr Michel responds: “Will suggests we meet for dinner with no wives. Is that OK?”
He later sends another message saying “Let’s do 8pm. Just you, me and Will. Will find a discreet location.”
Mr Oliver then sends Mr Michel a text the following day thanking him for dinner – which Mr Lewis in the end never attended.
The texts sent before the hacking scandal also raise concerns that Mr Michel was possibly suggesting that he could influence editorial content in The Times so it would be less hostile to Mr Oliver.
In April 2011 Mr Michel sends Mr Oliver a text message saying: “Times Foster piece very small on you.”
Mr Oliver replies: “Yes. Thanks. Appreciate. See you tomorrow.”
The piece in question appears to be an interview with the outgoing chairman of the BBC Sir Michael Lyon with the Times then Media Correspondent Patrick Foster.
Towards the bottom of the story there is a small reference to Mr Oliver – and his role in masterminding the BBC’s election coverage.
Tonight Downing Street said that “in the cold light of day” the texts looked embarrassing and the relationship was “all a bit unorthodox” but insisted that they were not inappropriate.
They added that the reason Ms Bertin had contracted Ms Brooks was that “she could not believe” she had been aware of the Milly Dowler hacking because of all she had done to help the victims of crime.
The spokesperson said there was nothing in the emails to suggest that anyone in Downing Street had been discussing the BSkyB deal with Mr Michel and said there was no smoking done.
“All these emails show is that politicians of all parties were too close to newspapers. That is something we know already,” they said.
On the kisses at the end of the emails a source added: “Mr Michel was French. Sometimes if someone puts ‘Xxx’ at the end of their emails it is difficult to know how to respond.”
The texts: ‘Thanks for messages to Rebekah’
Fréd Michel to Gabby Bertin, 21:09:34 Peston now
Gabby Bertin to Fréd Michel, 21:11:57 What has happened? X
Fréd Michel to Gabby Bertin, 21:34:35 [REDACTED]
Fréd Michel to Gabby Bertin, 21:45:26 Let's keep lines open. This is a critical time xxx
Gabby Bertin to Fréd Michel, 07:30:45, Of course xx
Fréd Michel to Gabby Bertin, 08:17:29, And thank you for your messages to Rebekah last night xxxx
Gabby Bertin to Fréd Michel, 19:24:53, Another hard core day. X
Fréd Michel Gabby Bertin, 19:48:27, Yes ... mon dieu ... incredible. Am with Craig now. DC was very good at PMQ. We need to get through this. You ok? Xxx
Fréd Michel to Gabby Bertin, 13:55:49, I do need to speak to you in 1 hour. very important. Our "last call". Xx
Gabby Bertin to Fréd Michel, 15:04:01, Ok x
Gabby Bertin to Fréd Michel, 15:37:21, When u announcing it? X
Fréd Michel to Gabby Bertin, 15:38:51, We have announced it internally now. Briefing media in next hour x
The texts: Best of ‘amis’
Jan 21, 2010
Fréd Michel: Had a great catch-up with Adam today. Hope baby is doing well. Fred.
Jeremy Hunt: Baby fine, just changed his nappy. Lucky daddy!
Fréd Michel: Great announcement today. Well done.
Jeremy Hunt: Merci papa.
Fréd Michel: Full of energy and purpose on Andrew Marr! Liked your answer on Rupert and on BBC! Have a great visit to India. Fred.
Jeremy Hunt: Merci mon ami.
Fréd Michel: Great speech. Watched it with Sky cycling team. And I can't believe you manage to do Newsnight as well! You have stamina daddy!