LONDON — Rupert Murdoch’s media empire enjoyed possibly inappropriate contacts with senior British politicians, including the government minister charged with deciding whether to allow Murdoch to take over a lucrative satellite broadcaster, according to evidence at a judicial inquiry Tuesday.
James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., testified that he had met a dozen times with Prime Minister David Cameron and rubbed elbows with George Osborne, the finance minister, and Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland. In some of those meetings, Murdoch talked about News Corp.'s controversial bid to buy broadcaster BSkyB, long targeted by the media giant for acquisition.
Moreover, documents introduced in court showed frequent communication between a Murdoch lobbyist and the office of Jeremy Hunt, the minister in charge of deciding whether the bid to buy BSkyB was permissible underBritain’santi-monopoly rules. Hunt’s office passed along tidbits and favorable comments that arguably should have remained confidential and that critics say compromised his expected impartiality when ruling on the takeover bid.
The revelations of the Murdoch empire’s reach into the highest echelons of British politics came at a judge-led inquiry into media practices, particularly at News Corp.-owned newspapers. The inquiry was launched as a result of the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked News Corp. and that prompted the company to shut down one of its most venerable titles, the News of the World tabloid, last summer.
Public outrage over widespread hacking prompted News Corp. to shelve its bid for full control of BSkyB, which up to that point looked as if it would pass muster with the government. Tuesday’s evidence that Hunt might have passed inside information to News Corp. executives triggered a call for his resignation by the opposition Labor Party.
It was more bad news for Cameron, whose government has already been tarnished by its close relationship with the Murdochs and with their newspapers.
In a highly anticipated appearance, James Murdoch spent all of Tuesday on the witness stand detailing his handling of the hacking scandal and the campaign to take over BSkyB.
He began his testimony by insisting that he had no idea how widespread phone hacking was at the News of the World. He said he had been assured by subordinates that the practice was confined to a “rogue reporter” who was jailed in 2007 for tapping into voicemails left for members of Britain’s royal household.
“I was given repeated assurances … that the newsroom had been investigated, that there was no evidence” of more hacking, Murdoch said, adding that he would have “cut out the cancer” of hacking if he had known that the practice extended to other journalists at the News of the World.
Police now say that the tabloid hacked into the phones of potentially hundreds of people, including actors, athletes, politicians and family members of murder victims and fallen soldiers. Revelations that the News of the World illegally accessed voicemails left on the phone of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl, who was later found slain, sparked a wave of national revulsion last summer.
The younger Murdoch denied that he was part of a corporate coverup of the hacking. At the same time, he rejected a suggestion that he was guilty of poor management for not knowing what was going on at one of his newspapers.
The scandal has thrown into serious doubt his status as heir apparent to his father at the helm of News Corp. In February, James Murdoch stepped down as chairman of News International, the company’s British subsidiary; at the beginning of this month, he resigned as chairman of BSkyB, of which News Corp. already owns about 39%.
In its bid for full control, executives brought to bear their wide-ranging contacts with senior politicians, though Murdoch sought to downplay those relationships.
“I haven’t actually spent that much time with politicians personally,” said Murdoch, whose father has been a regular guest of British prime ministers going back a quarter of a century. The elder Murdoch is scheduled to testify Wednesday.
During at least one of his meetings with Cameron, James Murdoch acknowledged, he and the prime minister had a “tiny side conversation” about News Corp.'s bid for BSkyB. But, Murdoch said, it did not amount to an actual discussion of the issue.
He grew visibly angry on the witness stand when the examining lawyer suggested News Corp.'s British newspapers, such as the widely read tabloid the Sun, supported particular British politicians in exchange for their support for the BSkyB takeover bid.
“The question of support of an individual newspaper for politicians one way or another is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction like this,” Murdoch said. “Nor would I expect … political support one way or another ever to translate into a minister behaving in an inappropriate way — ever. I simply wouldn’t do business that way.”
He insisted that all of News Corp.'s lobbying was proper and aboveboard. But there were audible expressions of surprise in the courtroom when it emerged that Hunt’s office had passed along valuable information to News Corp. on the status of its bid. In one email presented to the court, Murdoch’s chief lobbyist boasts of obtaining an advance copy of a parliamentary statement by Hunt, a breach of protocol the lobbyist describes as “absolutely illegal.”
Murdoch rejected the suggestion that the communications were “covert” or improper, and insisted that Hunt had acted within strict legal parameters every step of the way regarding News Corp.'s bid for BSkyB.