Rupert Murdoch was in London last week, crowing about scoring rights to online clips of Premier League soccer matches and reportedly visiting his UK newspapers. He also held a private dinner that’s becoming a hot potato in the local media. London Mayor Boris Johnson, a rival to Prime Minister David Cameron for leadership of the Conservative Party, is widely believed to have attended along with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, whose office confirmed his presence to The Guardian. (Also reportedly there was Homeland star Damian Lewis, whose show is produced by News Corp.-owned Fox21, and who’s a graduate of Eton, as is Johnson.) While private meetings between politicians and media owners don’t run afoul of parliamentary or party rules, this particular dinner has raised eyebrows in light of last year’s Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethics where an overriding theme was the cozy relationship enjoyed by newspaper proprietors and the highest levels of government.
The Guardian suggests that last week’s dinner in Mayfair “demonstrates” that Murdoch’s “political pulling power has not been diminished by criticism in the Leveson report.” Hugh Grant, who settled a complaint over alleged phone-hacking with Murdoch’s News International last month, tweeted on Monday: “BoJo and RuMu cosy up yet again. Murdochracy in action.” Yet others, including the press regulation advocacy group Hacked Off, of which Grant is a member, reserved their harshest criticism for the mayor. “After the revelations unearthed during Leveson, you might think that senior politicians had learnt their lesson about holding secret assignations with newspaper bosses. Yet it appears that Boris Johnson just doesn’t get it. It beggars belief that anyone could describe a dinner between the most powerful politician in London and the head of News Corporation, the company at the centre of the phone-hacking scandal, as a ‘private arrangement’,” Hacked Off wrote in a blog post. Johnson is also head of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime which has strategic oversight of the Metropolitan Police, which in turn has been investigating alleged wrongdoing at Murdoch’s UK press holdings, and Hacked Off called it “totally inappropriate for him to be meeting Mr Murdoch in private” during the ongoing probes.
During his Leveson testimony, Murdoch maintained that it was normal for politicians to speak with editors and press proprietors to share views, and he consistently denied letting his outside business concerns be a factor in who his papers chose to support. On January 26, four days after the dinner is said to have taken place, Murdoch tweeted: “UK politics fascinating. Cameron flat footed Milliband with Euro referendum promise, but still faces scepticism in own party.”