April 25, 2012
The Leveson Inquiry appears to confirm what the critics of the Murdochs have often suspected: that they have exploited their position as newspaper owners to win secret favours from governments. Emails released by News Corp --- they were written by James Murdoch's chief lobbyist, Frédéric Michel--- appear to show that Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, and his office passed confidential and market-sensitive information to the Murdoch empire to support its takeover of BSkyB.
The emails show that News Corp expected Hunt to push for the BSkyB deal to be approved; that Hunt providing advice guidance and privileged access to News Corporation, thereby acting as a back channel for the Murdochs; and that Hunt saw his job to help the Murdochs to get their bid for BSkyB successfully past the official regulators.
In The Guardian Nick Davies says that what is emerging is evidence suggesting a deal between the Conservative leadership and News Corp.
In its crudest form, the suggestion is that the Murdochs used the Sun to make sure that Gordon Brown was driven out of Downing Street so that the incoming Conservative government could deliver them a sequence of favours – a fair wind for them to take over BSkyB; the emasculation of the much resented Ofcom; and a severe funding cut to their primary broadcasting rival, the BBC.
It highlights how the political classes – from the time of the Thatcher administration, through the Blair government to the Cameron coalition – who have allowed News Corp to increase its hold on Britain's media estate.
The BSkyB deal was looked on rather skeptically by News Corp in New York, where the view was that it would tie up the lion's share of the company's cash far longer than was advisable. Therefore, the imperative for James Murdoch in London was to move this deal through the regulatory hurdles as fast as possible. Hunt set up a back channel to News Corp to facilitate this, and in doing so effectively acted for Murdoch's interests not the public interest.
As The Guardian editorial points out:
The meaning of "quasi-judicial" is simple enough. A public servant is required to behave like a judge – setting aside all personal prejudices and behaving with such transparency, candour and integrity that people can have total faith in his or her rulings. Judges don't book private meetings with one side in the cases they or their colleagues on the bench are hearing. They don't offer inside information, or appeal for private help in formulating their decisions or covertly demolishing the other side's arguments. They don't suggest PR strategies or brief one side what the other's been saying in confidence. They don't offer winked assurances that they share one party's aims or outcomes. They don't have private chats on their mobile phones to get round official scrutiny or slip confidential information through back channels. Any judge who behaved like that would not command public confidence and would be forced to resign.
In doing this Hunt had behaved in a manner that could not remotely be described as impartial or "quasi-judicial".
The Murdoch's in their anger at the Cameron Government for setting up the Leveson Inquiry into the phone hacking scandal at News of the World are dumping on the Cameron Government. This is being done under the guise of James Murdoch defending News Corporation's insider lobbying tactics for the letting the BSkyB deal through as just normal business. They were just making their case/brief to the government.
Will Rupert Murdoch deny the history of political fixes with Thatcher, Blair, Cameron when he appears at the Leveson Inquiry? Will he spill the beans? Will there be much insight into the political fixes in Australia? Somehow I doubt it.
Murdoch plays powerless broker at the Leveson Inquiry. He defended with well-constructed walls of obdurate denial, reinforced by occasional bouts of forgetfulness and long silences.
The Cameron Government's response to the revelations about the Culture Secretary's contacts with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp followed time-honoured precedent. The wagons were circled around the minister, and the special adviser was thrown to the wolves. The tactic is to erase the minister (Jeremy Hunt) from the picture by spinning the line that everything bad was done by an overzealous and free-booting adviser. The Minister acted properly throughout and did not know what was going on with his feral adviser.
How long will that defence stand up to scrutiny?