After Murdochs Are Grilled At Inquiry, Media Scandal Shifts From Hacking to Politics

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A still image from broadcast footage shows News Corporation Chief Executive and Chairman, Rupert Murdoch, speaking at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media, at the High Court in London, April 25, 2012.

On April 25, News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch sat before the same media ethics inquiry his son and heir apparent, James Murdoch, had faced the previous day. And like his son, the elder Murdoch was grilled on his relationship with British politicians. Robert Jay QC, the leading lawyer conducting interrogations at the inquiry overseen by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, kicked off the day with direct questions relating to Murdoch’s meetings with former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, around the time the media mogul was seeking to take over the Times of London in 1981. While Murdoch stated that he “didn’t expect help from her and didn’t ask for any,” when it came to acquiring the paper, the line of questioning was clearly an attempt to establish a pattern of close relationships between the Murdochs and British politicians. That suggestion seems particularly resonant in light of James Murdoch’s previous testimony, and the immediate ramifications for British politicos.

The younger Murdoch’s testimony revealed a close and comfortable relationship between News Corp. and the Conservative government in recent years. James Murdoch reported that he had briefly conversed with the then-newly elected prime minister, David Cameron, about News Corp.’s attempt to take over the British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) company at a Christmas party of former-News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks. Even more damning, however, was a trove of emails between a News Corp. lobbyist, Frédéric Michel, and the office of conservative MP and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, the official appointed to pass judgment on the Murdoch bid for BSkyB. The emails revealed a troublingly close relationship between the two camps and suggested that the official’s office was advising the Murdochs on the take-over. One of the most damning emails submitted as evidence was from Michel to James Murdoch, wherein the lobbyist said that he had “managed to get some info” on what Hunt would say about the bid, “although absolutely illegal!”

Hunt denied behaving inappropriately, swiftly telling reporters that he would make a “very, very determined effort to show that I behaved with total integrity.” While Cameron voiced support for his culture secretary, Labour party leader Ed Milliband called for Hunt to resign, telling the BBC, “Jeremy Hunt should have been standing up for the interests of the British people. In fact it now turns out he was standing up for the interests of the Murdochs.”

However, it wasn’t Hunt who resigned in the wake of the uproar, but his special adviser Adam Smith. The adviser, claiming that any inappropriate correspondence with the Murdoch team was entirely his fault, said in his resignation statement on April 25:

“While it was part of my role to keep News Corporation informed throughout the BSkyB bid process, the content and extent of my contact was done without authorization from the secretary of state. I do not recognize all of what Fred Michel said, but nonetheless I appreciate that my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department, contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary that this needed to be a fair and scrupulous process.”

Despite the prompt resignation, the implications of the cozy relationship could continue to be damning for the government. After all, if successful, the BSkyB bid promised to be a jackpot for the Murdochs, both in terms of profits and influence, as the network annually generates billion-dollar profits and is increasingly a competitor to the BBC. And as Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who broke the phone-hacking story, wrote on Apr. 24:

“[T]he prime minister would be in jeopardy if the alleged support for the BSkyB bid proved to be part of a bigger 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 [then-prime minister] 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.”

Yet as the continued questioning of Rupert Murdoch back at the inquiry seemed to reveal, those close ties weren’t unique to Cameron’s government. After asking about Murdoch’s meetings with Thatcher in the ‘80s, Jay grilled the elder Murdoch on the various relationships he held with former prime ministers John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown throughout his time as a media tycoon.

“I have never asked a prime minister for anything,” Murdoch said, repeatedly, in response to Jay’s questions, denying the implication that politicians curried his favor for positive coverage in his various publications, which included the Times, News of the World and the popular tabloid, The Sun. Murdoch also resolutely denied “the myth that [he] used The Sun or its political influence to get favorable treatment.”

Murdoch’s testimony is set to resume on Thursday, however it’s notable that after a long day of interrogation the issue of the phone-hacking scandal — the ordeal that kicked off the entire inquiry — was barely touched upon. In many ways, that detail is indicative of not only the scope of the inquiry’s intent, but also the depths of ills within British media culture. What first appeared to be a single bad seed in one tabloid – the much vaunted “rogue reporter” who was initially blamed for hacking at News of the World – has since been revealed to be a much larger beast, with roots that have touched the Murdochs, numerous News Corp. executives, journalists and Metropolitan police officers. With the latest revelations, the government has also now felt – and will likely continue to feel — the reverberations of the scandal.