Rupert Murdoch. REUTERS/Paul Hackett
A successful politician must be able to deny the obvious: “I am not a crook” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” It was the British courtesan Mandy Rice-Davies, testifying during the 1963 scandal over her friend Christine Keeler’s simultaneous affairs with the British War Minister John Profumo and a Soviet naval attaché, who is credited with the definitive response to such lies. Told that her own lover, Lord Astor, denied ever having met her, she supposedly replied, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC in April that “the idea there was some grand bargain between me and Rupert Murdoch—that is just not true.” The devastating May 1 parliamentary report, which concluded that Murdoch “is not a fit person” to run a major public company, offers a vivid example of why political connections have always been so important to the media mogul’s business model. The very phrase “not a fit person” is a clear signal to Ofcom, the British broadcasting regulator, which has the power to take away Murdoch’s broadcasting franchise here. Yet the sharp divisions among the select committee—whose five Conservative members all voted against the report, which passed thanks to the one Liberal Democrat and five Labour members—have blunted the report’s force while at the same time underlining just how much was at stake when Murdoch gave Cameron’s party his backing.
Let’s look at the record. Thanks to Judge Brian Leveson’s Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press, set up by the government after a public outcry over disclosures that Murdoch’s employees had hacked into the voicemail accounts of hundreds of British celebrities, politicians and public figures, we now know that Rupert Murdoch met with Cameron fifteen times while he was leader of the opposition—including four times in the two months just before the 2010 election. His son James Murdoch met Cameron twelve times during that period.
Both Murdochs have long resented the role of Ofcom and the publicly funded BBC. In July 2009 Cameron announced that if the Tories won the next election, the regulator would be abolished. The following month James Murdoch made a speech in Edinburgh attacking the BBC, accusing his family’s main broadcast competitor of having a “chilling” effect on British television and seeking to “throttle the news market.” Within days Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, had an article in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper demanding the BBC cut back on commercial activities and calling for the BBC’s license fee—its main source of income—to be frozen. That September James met Cameron for drinks at The George, a private club in Mayfair, to tell him the Sun would be switching its allegiance from Labour to the Tories.
After the election came the quid pro quo—not just a punitive financial settlement for the BBC, or deep cuts to Ofcom’s budget, though that all happened. Far more important was Murdoch’s $12 billion bid to take full control of BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster he helped found but owned only 39 percent of. The deal would have been the biggest in News Corporation history, and we now know—thanks to the 163 pages of e-mails and documents released by Leveson—that the Murdochs were able to follow every move of the government’s supposedly “quasi-judicial” deliberations on the takeover through a back channel between Hunt and News Corporation lobbyist Frederic Michel.