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When Rupert Murdoch settles into Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s hearing room in London today, it will be the mogul’s first such appearance since last July when he sat before the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. In the thick of the phone hacking scandal at the News Of The World and the revelations of intercepted voice mails on the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, Murdoch told that panel it was the “most humble” day of his life. He was later the target of an attack by a shaving foam pie thrower. It’s unlikely such a thing will occur again. What will come up again, though, are the phone hacking scandal, Murdoch’s relationship to British politicians and News Corp’s bid for BSkyB. The political and BSkyB aspects of James Murdoch’s testimony yesterday ended up overshadowing the proceedings where many thought phone hacking would be the focus. It’s likely today that unflappable counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC will hone in on Murdoch’s association with government. Let’s follow along, shall we? (All times below are local UK time.)
10:05 The hearing is off to a late start, but Murdoch has arrived at the High Court.
10:11 Lord Justice Brian Leveson begins by reading a statement saying he is approaching the proceedings with an impartial stance. He also says he understands the press will draw their own conclusions. In light of the reaction yesterday and this morning to James Murdoch’s testimony, he wants to explain something of the judicial process. “I understand some of the reactions yesterday,” but he says he is “acutely aware” documents such as the emails read yesterday can’t be taken at face value. He says he’s not taking sides but wants to say he needs to hear all sides before his findings. He says everyone involved will appear, seeming to hint that culture secretary Jeremy Hunt may give evidence at a later date. Leveson’s heard calls for other inquiries but feels this one needs to end before further investigation.
Murdoch is sworn in, he has legal aid by his side to help with documents.
10:14 Jay says: Is it fair to say you’ve been following British politics for 60 years? Murdoch answers yes, laughs and says “with varying intensity.”
The state of media in this country is vital to all its citizens, Murdoch says. He welcomes the opportunity to appear at the hearing to “put certain myths to bed.” He says abuses go further than phone hacking.
10:18 Jay: Are you a longtime admirer of Baroneess Thatcher and what she stands for?
Murdoch: Yes, I remain a great admirer.
Jay goes straight to The Sun supporting Thatcher and asks if Murdoch’s support of her goes to before that.
He says I think we all wanted change after the worst winter of discontent (he’s talking about the strikes in 1979).
Jay brings up Murdoch’s tweets, the one about “right wingers and toffs.”
Murdoch gets a laugh from the room when he says: “Don’t take my tweets too seriously.”
10:26 Jay turns to Murdoch’s newspaper holdings and begins asking about a lunch with Thatcher in 1981. Murdoch says he doesn’t remember it but accepts that it happened.
Jay says it was quite an intimate lunch and the meeting was at Murdoch’s request. “I think this meeting was to inform the chief executive of the change of ownership of quite an iconic asset (Times Newspapers),” says Murdoch.
Jay: Why was it important Thatcher understand nature and quality of your bid?
Murdoch: This was the movement of a great institution under the threat of closure and I thought it was perfectly right she should know what was at stake.
Jay says she knew anyway. Murdoch doesn’t agree.
Jay: Were you seeking to demonstrate to her you were the right man to acquire the great papers because you had the charisma and will to take the papers forward and crush the unions?
Murdoch gets another laugh when he says, “I didn’t have the will, I might have had the desire, but it took some years.”
10:30 Jay: “No express favors were offered by Mrs Thatcher?”
Murdoch: “And none asked. I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything…I didn’t expect any help from her.”
Jay: “Were you concerned you might not be able to acquire the company?”
Murdoch: “Oh, yes I could have been outbid.” But, he denies he was concerned about competition.
10:39 Jay is talking about the former owner of Times Newspapers and the process to acquire the papers. The papers were struggling with the unions.
Jay: “You undertook to maintain the editorial independence of The Times and The Sunday Times.”
Murdoch: “Let’s face it if an editor is sending a newspaper broke, it is the responsibility of the proprietor to step in.”
The issue here has to do with the then trade secretary John Biffen and a non-referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission of the bid to acquire the newspapers.
10:48 Jay is going far back in history to attempt to highlight Murdoch’s close ties to government and his dominance in the media.
Separately, tt’s being reported that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will address Parliament later today. (He’s the one who’s name came up most often in James Murdoch’s testimony yesterday. The Labour Party has called for his resignation given disclosure of emails between Hunt’s office and the younger Murdoch’s public affairs chief during the BSkyB bid.)
Jay talks about the Australian Press Council accusing Murdoch of bias and pushing commercial interests in his papers.
Murdoch says he takes a very strong position that he’s never used his papers to push his commercial interests.
10:56 Jay is speaking to Murdoch’s so-called “charisma.”
Murdoch says he works very hard to set an example of ethical behavior and that he expects it, “but do I have an aura of charisma? I don’t think so.”
Jay is reading from Harold Evans’ memoir Good Times Bad Times about Murdoch’s attempts to establish himself as a UK press baron in the late 60s.
Murdoch’s arrival in the UK has had some negative effect on the tabloid press, the book says.
Asked if standards in the tabloid press have improved since 1968, Murdoch says he thinks The Sun has never been a better paper than it is today.
11:00 Jay says there’s unfortunately not enough time to go through the whole book. Murdoch says he’s never read it.
Jay reads from the book: “In my year as editor of The Times, Murdoch broke all these guarantees” and summoned another editor shortly before Evans’ resignation.
Jay says the book quotes Murdoch as saying, “I give instructions to my editors all around the world, why shouldn’t I in London?”
Murdoch says he didn’t say that.
11:04 Jay turns to another book that says Murdoch was “one of the main powers behind the Thatcher throne.” Murdoch says he was not. He also denies consulting with her on policy.
11:09 Turning back to the papers, Jay reads another book quote that says Murdoch never influenced The Times and Sunday Times. But, the quote reads that at The Sun and News Of The World he was a traditional proprietor “who exercises editorial control on major issues like which party to back and policies in Europe.”
Murdoch interjects “I never much interfered with the News Of The World, I’m sorry to say.”
Murdoch says he’d agree about The Sun, though, “I’m a curious person and I’m not good at holding my tongue.”
11:17 Murdoch is asked if he had a role in the publication of the Hitler diaries in 1983. “I’m sorry to say, yes.” The diaries turned out to be a hoax. Murdoch says it was a major mistake, “I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.”
The inquiry takes a short break.
11:24 Jay resumes talking about Murdoch’s influence on editors. He asks Murdoch if he knew Rebekah Wade’s (now Brooks) views before he appointed her. Murdoch says he knew a lot of them.
Murdoch says it’s elitist to say that tabloids show people’s grubby, base instincts.
Murdoch: “I don’t believe in using hacking, in using private detectives. I think that’s a lazy way of reporters doing their job. But I think it is fair when people have themselves held up as iconic figures or great actors, that they be looked at. And sometimes – we just did an example of it, Simon Cowell wanted to tell it all himself – I think a lot of these people are very big in the lives of ordinary people. Big television stars, film stars and of course I must include politicians if we’re getting into the issue of privacy…I’d even include press prorprietors in that…If we’re going to have a transparent society, a transparent democracy, let’s have everything out in the open.”
11:28 Leveson asks: “You don’t see a distinction between politicians, newspaper proprietors and judges – I’d have to think about that – and those who hold themselves out as exercising influence and someone who is an actor or a film star or because they have written a book?”
Murdoch deflects and answers: “I was jealous of The Daily Telegraph buying all the expense accounts of the members of Parliament. I thought that was a great public service. I’ve gotta say I’m disappointed the editor of The Times didn’t buy them.”
Leveson presses the question again.
Murdoch says it’s a tough subject but that he thinks politicians do hold themselves out as public figures and sometimes it’s right to look behind the facade.
11:34 Jay is talking about The Sun‘s support of the Labour Party until 1979. Now we’re at election day 1987. Reading from a book by Woodrow Wyatt, Jay says Murdoch yelled at the TV as Labour’s defeat was blamed on smears in the media. “That was me!” Murdoch says in the book. He allows he probably said it, but he was likely under the influence of alcohol.
11:39 Thatcher depended on Murdoch’s support and he depended on her support back in 1990 and regarding BSkyB, says Jay. Murdoch says he doesn’t agree.
Murdoch notes Thatcher had others supporting her in the press, and, “you know, editorials don’t get read that much by people.”
Jay asks if Murdoch was the biggest player then and is still now. Murdoch says if you’re talking about newspapers, yes and “people can stop buying my newspapers any time…and it is only natural for politicians to reach out to editors and sometimes proprietors to explain what they are doing…but I was only one of several and today I am only one of several.”
11:50 Murdoch says he thinks there are some papers with very clear conservative roots and some with very liberal roots, except The Sun. “The Sun is perhaps the only independent newspaper in the business” – this draws laughter from the hearing room.
Jay is talking about the 1992 general election when Neil Kinnock blamed his loss on Murdoch. Jay suggests that if Kinnock had passed he would have gone right after Murdoch’s company. The Sun famously ran a headline, “It’s The Sun Wot Won It,” claiming it had won the election for the Conservatives.
Jay asks, “Is it fair to say that you generally back the winning side.”
Murdoch says no, but “I’m trying to think when we didn’t.” (he gets another laugh).
He also says: “I never let my commercial interests, whatever they are, enter into any elections. Give me an instance.”
Jay says he will later. They’re talking about politicians Murdoch has known. He says he doesn’t know many.
11:53 Jay claims Sun readers are easily swayed. Murdoch agrees the paper has a large audience but that people don’t follow everything they say. “We hope by raising issues we can have influence but it’s not political parties.”
Jay: You’re completely oblivious to the benefits of a political party being in power with regard to your commercial interests.
Murdoch says his commercial interest is his papers, but that his shareholders would like him to get rid of them all.
Jay is turning to the “rise” of Tony Blair.
12:05 Jay is talking about a private dinner in 1994 arranged by News International employee Gus Fisher at Mossiman’s private restaurant in London. Blair and Murdoch were present and are said to have liked each other. This is from a book by Andrew Neil. Murdoch says he doesn’t remember the dinner but it sounds possible. Blair in the book says media ownership rules would not be onerous under Labour. This is before Blair was prime minister.
Jay refers to a Hayman Island [Australia] trip in 1995 when Blair flew to speak at a Murdoch conference. Oz prime minister Paul Keating was there as well. Blair’s speech was a hit and after it Murdoch supposedly said to him that if their relationship was “ever consummated, we’ll end up making love like porcupines: very, very carefully.” Murdoch says he probably did say that amid an outburst of laughter from the room.
The room settles and Jay turns to discussions of media ownership with relation to the government.
After a question from Leveson, Murdoch reiterates that his business concerns never affected the papers.
12:10 Jay is reading from Alastair Campbell’s diary with notes about TB [Tony Blair] and GB [Gordon Brown].
Jay: Did you sense in your discussions with politicians that there was a sort of pirouette going on?
Murdoch says Jay is making “sinister inferences.” He stamps his hand on the table and says “In 10 years in his power, I never asked Mr Blair for anything nor did I receive any favors.”
Jay presses: Didn’t you sense that Blair and Brown were sounding you out?
Murdoch: “I think the party wanted to convince me they were the right people to run Britain and I’m sure they were doing that to every other press proprietor.”
12:15 Murdoch is getting hotter under the collar insisting he never took commercial considerations.
Leveson offers the diary is not saying that exactly.
They discuss the endorsement of Blair.
12:18 Jay turns to Neil’s words again saying Neil said there was an “implicit understanding, never openly talked about, but an understanding nonetheless” regarding Blair and Murdoch agreeing on media ownership postitions. Murdoch says it’s not true. “And if it was true, he didn’t keep his promise because he allowed Ofcom to interfere with us.”
12:34 Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s adviser Adam Smith has quit. According to evidence at the Leveson inquiry yesterday, Smith was the go-between for James Murdoch’s public affairs officer Frédéric Michel and Hunt. The Guardian is reporting that Smith resigned saying he acted without Hunt’s authority and that he had allowed the impression to be created of too close a relationship between News Corp and the Department of Culture Media And Sport.
Jeremy Hunt addressed Parliament today, here.
The inquiry is back from a short break.
Jay brings up a 1997 article Blair wrote in which he said he wouldn’t dismantle trade union reforms set up by Thatcher. This is something that would have pleased Murdoch, but Murdoch doesn’t think they talked about it at dinner that night.
Fast forward to March 1998 and Jay asks if Murdoch asked Blair to intervene and speak to Romano Prodi about his deal to acquire Mediaset. Murdoch says no.
Regarding a book by Chris Patten that was to be published by Harper Collins which Patten says coincided with Murdoch’s attempts to move into China, Jay says Murdoch stepped in at the last minute.
Murdoch says that’s “half right. I didn’t have any interests in China, not for lack of trying, but I had always taken the view that Patten was a bad governor of Hong Kong…and when I heard it was about to hit the streets, I did step in and say don’t (publish) it. Which, I wish to say, was one more mistake of mine.”
12:40 Jay asks if Murdoch’s papers supported the 2003 Gulf War. Murdoch says yes, “as did The New York Times.”
Jay brings up 3 phone calls between Murdoch and Blair before the start of the war. Jay says “you must have spoken about the war.”
Murdoch answers it was probably on Blair’s mind but that News International’s position on the war was very strong and well-known before any calls.
12:47 They are discussing Murdoch and Gordon Brown’s relationship. Jay references a weekend at Chequers as the guest of the Browns in October 2007. Murdoch asks “was that the Pajama Party Weekend?” Even Jay laughs at that as he says it’s unrelated. [The pajama party Murdoch was referring to is actually more commonly known as the Slumber Party weekend. It refers to Rebekah Brooks being invited by Gordon Brown’s wife to attend a slumber party at the prime minister’s residence.]
Murdoch says he only remembers being there once – and that he got to meet JK Rowling. Asked if Brown asked him for advice on a snap election, Murdoch says no.
1:07 In September 2009, Brown is said to have “roared” at Murdoch for 20 minutes on the phone over The Sun‘s support of his opposition.
Murdoch says that is “a very colorful exaggeration. Brown did call me and said ‘Rupert, do you know what’s going on here?’ And, I said ‘what do you mean?’ he said ‘well The Sun and what it’s doing and how it came out’ and I said ‘I was not warned of the exact timing and I’m not aware of what they’re saying. But, I’m sorry to tell you Gordon, we will support a change of government at the next election.'”
Murdoch contends no voices were raised, but that Brown said, “Well your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative but to make war on your company.” Murdoch says he said “I’m sorry about that Gordon, thank you for calling.”
Jay asks how Brown could have declared war on his company. Murdoch says he doesn’t know. “I don’t think he was in a very balanced state of mind. But, he could have set up more commissions, God knows there’s plenty of them around us now.”
Later, Murdoch adds, “when the hacker scandal broke, he made a totally outrageous statement which he had to know was wrong and he called us a criminal organization because he said we’d hacked into his personal medical records when he knew very well how The Sun had found out about his son.” [Brown’s son has cystic fibrosis.] Murdoch explains that a father from the hospital in a similar position called the paper and asked if there should be some charity involved. Murdoch says Rebekah Brooks said “let me handle this” and called Brown’s wife to ask how she would like it handled. Several days later, Murdoch says, “we published a story and a few days later Mr brown wrote a personal letter to Mrs Brooks thanking her for her senstitivity.”
Jay asks if this is a story he’s been told by Brooks.
Murdoch says Brown’s wife has spoken to him in a friendly way since and that others in the newsroom could corroborate. He says he hasn’t seen the letter which he thinks is in the hands of the police.
Going back to declaration of war comments, Jay wonders if Murdoch was concerned about the BSkyB acquisition later on. Murdoch essentially says no. Murdoch says the acquisition was turned into a political issue by “our newspaper enemies – I shouldn’t say enemies, competitors.” He adds, “We thought we’d be held up for a couple of months in Europe and have no problems here. In fact we were waived through in Europe in two weeks and not here.”
Jay asks how far back the takeover of BSkyB had been discussed. Murdoch says it was a longstanding ambition.
Jay wonders if it had entered his thinking to interpret the “war on your company” as an obstacle to acquiring the rest of BSkyB. He says no.
The inquiry has broken for lunch.
2:09 They’re back. Jay turns immediately to David Cameron, the current prime minister. Murdoch talks about meeting him at his daughter’s house with his family and about what a good family man he is.
He says he did not refer to him as “lightweight.”
Jay refers to meetings between Cameron and Murdoch in 2006, 2007 and in 2008 when there was a breakfast and both Murdoch and Cameron attended the wedding of Rebekah and Charlie Brooks.
Jay talks about a breakfast meeting with Cameron on the day The Sun endorsed him, September 30. Murdoch says that’s not so. But Jay contends it was that date.
2:13 Murdoch is asked if he spoke of broadcasting regulation with Cameron. Murdoch admonishes Jay for continually saying his support was tied to business concerns. Murdoch says he would have supported the Tories in every election if that had been the case because they were more business-minded.
Jay asks if they discussed Ofcom, BBC license fees and other issues. Murdoch says he didn’t care about the BBC. “I’ve talked about the BBC with other prime ministers, they all hated the BBC and they all just gave it what it wanted.” And, the room is in stitches again.
2:20 Leveson interrupts and seems to give Murdoch a chance to be able to say some topics like media regulation might have come up during meetings with politicians because people might just be interested in talking with such a longtime expert.
Murdoch says he understands but he still insists there were no business discussions.
Jay asks about BSkyB and Murdoch says he doesn’t believe the takeover was the business of government. He says it didn’t matter because Ofcom had already ruled News Corp controlled the company.
Jay notes there’s always been a political frisson around his acquisitions. Murdoch says he welcomes that question because “I want to put it to bed once and for all. It’s a complete myth that I used The Sun or supposed political power” for influence.
2:30 Jay talks of a trip Cameron made to Santorini where Murdoch and he met on a Murdoch family yacht in 2008. Jay wonders if it’s normal that someone like Cameron would take such steps.
Murdoch says he does because politicians go out of their way to impress the press. He contends there were no big political issues discussed. Murdoch agrees that politicians would like newspapers to carry their views in a positive way.
“I’ll be quite honest, Mr Jay. I enjoy meeting our leaders,” Murdoch says and says he’s been very impressed by some around the world.
He also adds: “Look at how I treat Mayor Bloomberg in New York. It drives him crazy but we support him every time he runs.”
Talk turns to how Murdoch makes back door entrances at 10 Downing Street. And specifically to a tea to which he was invited. Jay notes the BSkyB bid was about to be announced.
Jay: “Was there no link in your mind between your support of Mr Cameron and the BSkyB bid?”
Murdoch: “None at all.”
2:34 Why was the bid announced one month after the election, Jay asks.
Murdoch says he’s not sure but says Chase Carey had raised the question with outside directors in June that year and said News Corp was keen to move forward.
Jay talks about the prep for the bid and how long it would have taken and says “surely, you’re being advised” when a good time would be to announce the bid.
It’s pure coincidence that the announcement was one month after the election, it is contended.
2:40 Jay is moving on to Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister.
From November 2000-October 2007, there’s no contact between Murdoch and Salmond.
In October 2007 News International inagurated a new printing plant in Scotland and Salmond was present. In 2011, there were discussions of News Corp’s investments in Scotland. Murdoch says it might have been to apologize because News Corp broken up Sky’s call center, meaning the loss of jobs.
Murdoch describes a “warm” relationship with Salmond. From 2007 to today, Murdoch agrees their relationship is geeting warmer. Murdoch says he’s an amusing guy and he enjoys talking with him.
2:56 Jay goes through correspondence between Murdoch and Salmond. The Scottish Sun, which Murdoch owns, previously supported Labour but in 2011 supports Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) [The party devoted to Scottish independence]. The Sun remained neutral on independence, though.
Jay asks why and Murdoch says “It’s a little emotional, but I’m attracted by the idea. I’m not convinced so I said we should stay neutral on the big issue, but let’s see how he performs.”
He thinks Scottish independence is a “nice idea.”
Leveson calls a halt to the inquiry for today so everyone can rest. Back tomorrow at 10.