UPDATE, 8:37 AM: David Cameron began the afternoon session at Leveson by immediately clarifying hesitant and vague comments he’d made earlier about his relationship with Rebekah Brooks. Noting that his wife keeps excellent diaries, he said he was only at his country residence, just down the road from Brooks, every six weeks in 2008 & 2009 and even less than that in 2010. Once that was handled, questioning turned to the BSKyB bid and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s role in it.
Cameron has vociferously defended Hunt, refusing to refer him to an independent probe on ministerial conduct. That’s despite revelations of a close relationship between Hunt’s and James Murdoch’s offices and his public support of the bid before being given oversight of it. When Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his responsibility in the bid, after he was caught by undercover reporters saying he’d declared “war on Murdoch,” Hunt was installed to replace him. Although the affair was turned around in an afternoon, Cameron insisted, “It was not a rushed, botched decision.” It also recently came to light that on the same day, Downing Street had received legal advice that remarks made by Hunt could be seen as “prejudging the issues.” Cameron told the inquiry, “If anyone had told me that Jeremy Hunt couldn’t do the job, I wouldn’t have given him the job.”
PREVIOUS, 6:06 AM: Toeing a familiar line, UK Prime Minister David Cameron today denied he ever had an “overt” or a “covert” deal with the Murdochs in exchange for their newspapers’ support. The PM also added that he didn’t believe in “wink and nod deals” and shot down the idea that the Conservative Party and Murdoch’s UK press arm News International got together and plotted an exchange to pass News Corp’s BSkyB bid.
The morning session of the Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethichs – which Cameron himself convened last year – got off to a slow start with counsel Robert Jay lobbing softballs at the relaxed politician. Increasingly, however, Cameron appeared frustrated by questions about his relationships with the Murdochs and former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks – along with a pretty damning text message – and his hiring of former News Of The World editor Andy Coulson as his communications director.
On his relationship with Brooks, who is now facing charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice related to the phone-hacking scandal, Cameron was somewhat vague. The two had known each other for some time before she started dating Cameron’s Oxfordshire neighbor Charlie Brooks, but he said their relationship grew after she became engaged to and moved in with Brooks, “a few miles down the road.” When queried as to how often they saw each other, Cameron said, “It’s very difficult because I don’t have a record and I don’t want to give you an [inaccurate] answer… Sometimes quite a bit… Definitely once she started going out with Charlie… I was definitely seeing her more often. Charlie and I play tennis so… “
A clearly chummy text message from Brooks to Cameron dated October 7, 2009 – about a week after The Sun newspaper switched its support from the Labour Party to Cameron’s Conservative Party – was read aloud. Jay took issue with the part that read: “Professionally, we’re definitely in this together.” But Cameron chalked her text up to The Sun wanting to put its “best foot forward” now that it had broken with Labour and was “going to be pushing the same political agenda” as Cameron.
Cameron told the inquiry that James Murdoch had earlier informed him in a September 2009 meeting that The Sun was going to shift its support, although he did not recall whether policy issues on the BBC or UK regulator Ofcom were broached. Murdoch had recently voiced harsh criticism of both orgs in a high-profile speech, and in Gordon Brown’s testimony from earlier this week, he said that Cameron had made an express deal with the Murdochs to follow the line of that speech in exchange for News International’s support. “It is absolute nonsense from start to finish,” Cameron said. Brown, “has conjured a specious and unjustified conspiracy theory.”
Jay then attempted to draw Cameron out on this given that the Prime Minister later froze the BBC license fee, leading the group – which is a competitor of News Corp-controlled BSkyB – to undergo a period of harsh belt-tightening. Jay wondered if there could be the perception of a link between Conservative policies and Murdoch’s speech, “Some might say you would have met Mr Murdoch part of the way.” Cameron then about lost his cool and made a reference to “witchcraft trials.” He said, “We can explain our policies. There is evidence where they came from and very good Conservative explanations for the policies. They came from me” and “were not dictated by anyone else.”
Just before lunch, the talk turned to the appointment of Cameron’s communications director Andy Coulson. Coulson had resigned as editor of News Of The World in 2007 over what was then thought to be an isolated instance of phone hacking. Cameron said he discussed Coulson with Brooks and asked Coulson about the phone-hacking scandal, but was given assurances which he took at face value, along with what else was in the public domain. He allowed that with hindsight, he would not have hired Coulson if he’d been given evidence that he “knew about or was in any way involved with phone hacking.” Coulson resigned in 2011 and has since been charged with perjury.