Published April 29, 2012
LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged Sunday that he wooed Rupert Murdoch as he attempted to win power in Britain, but insisted he never struck a tit-for-tat deal to support the media mogul's business dealings in return for favorable coverage.
Ties between Cameron's government and Murdoch's News Corp. are under scrutiny after Britain's judge-led inquiry into media ethics raised questions about a minister's handling of a decision on whether the company should be authorized to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting, in which it holds a 39 percent stake.
Lord Justice Brian Leveson's inquiry has disclosed 163 emails sent by News Corp. lobbyist Frederic Michel about his contacts with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's office, mainly with special adviser Adam Smith.
Hunt was supposed to be acting as an impartial judge to decide on whether to approve the takeover or refer it to regulators, but Michel's e-mails portrayed the minister, or his office, as leaking sensitive information to Murdoch's representatives and supporting the News Corp. case.
Smith resigned Wednesday, and claimed he had held some discussions without Hunt's authority.
Cameron told the BBC in an interview that "as things stand, I don't believe Jeremy Hunt broke the ministerial code," but warned that if any evidence emerged that Hunt had acted inappropriately, he would order an investigation.
Both Cameron and Hunt will give evidence, along with other lawmakers, to the Leveson inquiry on the relationship between the press and politicians.
The inquiry was launched in the wake of the tabloid phone hacking scandal, which forced Murdoch in mid-2011 to close down the country's top selling Sunday newspaper, the News of The World, and to drop News Corp.'s takeover bid for BSkyB.
Cameron said that when in opposition he had wooed Murdoch and his British newspapers. Murdoch's daily tabloid The Sun switched support from Britain's Labour Party to Cameron's Conservative Party before the country's 2010 national election. The Conservatives won the most seats but not a majority, forming a coalition government with a smaller party.
"I did want the support of as many newspapers and television commentators for the Conservative Party because I wanted to take the country in a different direction," Cameron said.
However, he insisted he had never promised to go easy on Murdoch's businesses in exchange for that backing.
"The thing that people are asking is was there some big deal, some big agreement between me and Rupert Murdoch or (his son) James Murdoch that in return for support for the Conservative Party I would somehow help their business interests or allow this merger to go through," he said.
"It would be absolutely wrong for there to be any sort of deal and there wasn't," Cameron insisted.
Cameron acknowledged that he chatted with James Murdoch — then the chairman of BSkyB — about the deal at a 2010 Christmas party hosted by Rebekah Brooks, the ex-chief executive of News International, the British division of News Corp.
Asked if he was now embarrassed about that meeting, Cameron said that "in hindsight, one might do things differently."
Before the deal was dropped, Hunt had approved News Corp.'s takeover proposal in March 2011 after it offered to spin off BSkyB's Sky News channel to alleviate concerns about any concentration of news media ownership.
Hunt insists he did not have inappropriate contact with News Corp. executives over the deal, and has pledged to disclose his private texts and emails to the Leveson inquiry.