Menu

Europe

Memo: UK minister lobbied for Murdoch takeover

A British minister in the hot seat for his alleged close ties to Rupert Murdoch's media empire did lobby Prime Minister David Cameron to back the tycoon's bid for satellite broadcaster BSkyB, according to a memo made public Thursday.

Media Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whose close links to Murdoch's News Corp. have cast a cloud over his career, said in a Nov. 19, 2010, letter to Cameron that Murdoch's son James was "pretty furious" about the obstacles being put in the way of the New York-based company's bid for the lucrative pay-TV provider.

Hunt said in the memo that James Murdoch hoped the multibillion-pound bid would shake up Britain's media industry the same way his father had done in the 1980s by revolutionizing newspaper production when he battled the printing unions.

"He wants to create the first multiplatform media operator," Hunt wrote. "If we block it our media sector will suffer for years."

Hunt's memo was written about a month before he was given responsibility for ruling on whether to refer Murdoch's bid to competition regulators — a vital quasi-judicial function that he had promised to carry out impartially.

The memo, whose existence was disclosed in testimony to a long-running U.K. inquiry into media ethics, showed the degree to which Hunt sympathized with the New York-based News Corp., which has since been plunged into scandal over phone hacking and other shady practices at its subsidiaries.

Critics say News Corp.'s influence over U.K. politicians was one of the reasons the company was able to get away with wrongdoing in Britain for so long. The inquiry — led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson — is sifting through the scandal's fallout to find out whether press barons like Murdoch got too close to the police and politicians meant to keep them in check.

Whether Hunt acted fairly has been called into question by a mass of emails and texts that suggest his office was bending over backward to help Murdoch — for example by slipping News Corp.'s top European lobbyist Frederic Michel intelligence on the progress of the potentially lucrative bid. The deal, if completed, would have increased News Corp.'s stake in BSkyB from 39.1 percent to 100 percent and reinforced the foundations of Murdoch's digital empire.

Fallout from the phone hacking scandal prompted Murdoch to withdraw the plan last summer.

Hunt has claimed that his special adviser Adam Smith went rogue, sharing too much information with the lobbyist Michel without proper authorization. Smith resigned when the evidence was made public.

But Thursday's testimony did little to help repair Hunt's credibility, with Michel saying the minister must have known about what Smith was up to.

"I would have to assume that special advisers, and there are not many around the secretary of state — there were two in that case — always represent the view of their boss," he said.

"There (were) two or three events where I probably had the impression that some of the feedback I was being given had been discussed with the secretary of state before it was given to me," Michel added.

The testimony also gave a feel for the scale of the contact between News Corp. and Hunt's office.

Michel made 191 telephone calls and sent 158 emails and 799 texts to Hunt's office between June 2010, when News Corp. announced its bid to buy out other BSkyB shareholders, and July 2011, when the hacking scandal — which erupted at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid — forced him to drop the plan.

Smith, who spoke briefly on Thursday, is to continue his testimony Friday.

Journalists at Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World routinely hacked phones to get stories, bypassing weak security to illegally eavesdrop on private conversations of politicians, celebrities, sports stars and other public figures. The scandal has rocked Britain's establishment, leading to the arrest of dozens of people and casting a harsh light on relations among Britain's press, politicians and police.