PM admits conversation about BSkyB bid with James Murdoch at Rebekah Brooks’s house, but says it was not ‘inappropriate’
David Cameron has insisted there was “no grand deal” with Rupert Murdoch over the BSkyB bid in exchange for support for his party.
“The idea there was some grand bargain between me and Rupert Murdoch – that is just not true,” he said on the BBC1 Andrew Marr programme.
The prime minister indicated he regretted attending a Christmas party at the Oxfordshire home of the then News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, in December 2010, and admitted discussing matters with James Murdoch, but insisted he did not have “inappropriate conversations with anyone about this”.
The Sunday Times reported that Brooks, who is under investigation by Scotland Yard for her alleged role in the phone-hacking affair, was ready to disclose text messages and emails between herself and Cameron. The move could be embarrassing for the prime minister, who is believed to have been in regular contact with Brooks by text when she was NI chief.
Cameron delivered a robust defence of his government’s actions following the publication at the Leveson inquiry of 163 pages of emails, which detailed the close relationship between the Murdochs and their staff and the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and his special adviser Adam Smith over the BSkyB bid.
Smith resigned the day after the correspondence was published, and Hunt, who faced calls for his resignation over his handling of the bid, promised he would clear his name by releasing details of his own communications.
Cameron said he did not believe Hunt had broken the ministerial code but signalled that Hunt would go if new evidence emerged in the Leveson inquiry “presenting a different picture from the one we have heard”.
Cameron rejected the accusation that he had shaped any of his policies in government to suit “this proprietor or that proprietor”, and said he intended to say this under oath when he faced the Leveson inquiry.
The fact he had tried to win over many media outlets in the runup to the 2010 general election was “no great mystery”, he said. “The thing that people are asking is was there some big deal, some big agreement between me and Rupert Murdoch or 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.
“That is not true. Rupert Murdoch said it under oath at the Leveson inquiry. James Murdoch said it under oath. I will say it under oath. 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. When it comes to the Murdoch newspapers, I was trying to convince a set of newspapers with largely centre-right, conservative views anyway, that they would be better off with the Conservative party running the country. There is no great mystery here – that is what I was trying to do.”
Cameron said he did not recall the exact details of his conversation with Murdoch at Brooks’s party but said it concerned the controversy at the time over comments by the business secretary, Vince Cable, that he had “declared war” on News Corporation.
“What I recall saying, although I can’t remember every detail of the conversation, is saying something like: clearly that was unacceptable, it was embarrassing for the government, and to be clear from now on this whole issue would be dealt with impartially, properly, in the correct way, but obviously I had nothing to do with it, I recused myself from it,” he said.
Asked whether he was embarrassed that he was even at the party, he said: “Clearly, after all that’s been written and said about it, yes of course one might do things differently.”
The prime minister gave the interview after a difficult few weeks for his government, underlined by the Conservatives’ worst polling since entering government, just days before local elections take place.
A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times shows support for the Conservatives has fallen to 29%, with David Cameron’s personal approval rating also suffering a blow. The poll shows Labour is on 40% and the Liberal Democrats on 11%, with Ukip on 10%.
The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, accused Cameron of ducking an inquiry into Hunt because he was afraid of the scrutiny of his own dealings with News Corporation.
The prime minister insisted breaches of the ministerial code were his responsibility, but said it would be wrong to sack Hunt because Smith’s contact with the Murdoch empire had been “too close, too frequent and inappropriate”.
He said he did not believe Hunt had broken the ministerial code and insisted “natural justice” should take its course so the minister could “explain his actions, [so] all the information comes out”.
“He does a good job. I think he’s a good culture, media and sport secretary. I think he’s doing an excellent job on the Olympics and frankly I do think people deserve to have these things looked into properly.”
But if new evidence emerged in the Leveson inquiry “presenting a different picture from the one we have heard”, Cameron said, Hunt would go.
“If evidence comes out through this exhaustive inquiry where you’re giving evidence under oath – if he did breach the ministerial code – than clearly that’s a different issue and I would act,” said Cameron.
“If ministers have behaved badly, broken the ministerial code, it is my responsibility either to ask [the adviser on the ministerial code] Alex Allan’s advice about what should happen or to take action myself and say they can’t remain in the government.
“I don’t duck my responsibilities for one second, and if that has happened, then I will act. But – and this is the big but – what is the best way of getting the information about what actually happened? And I don’t believe there is any better process than an inquiry, led by a judge, where people give evidence under oath, and that is why, after consulting the cabinet secretary, I thought it would not be right to set up some sort of parallel investigation.”
Harriet Harman, shadow culture secretary and deputy Labour leader, said there was clear evidence already that Hunt had breached the code. She told BBC1’s Sunday Politics: “The ministerial code says that a secretary of state mustn’t mislead parliament. He has. He said on 3 March that he had published all the exchanges between his department, the Department [for] Culture, and News Corp. And evidently he hadn’t published all those exchanges because he’s now offering to do them some months later.
“Also the ministerial code says your special adviser, your political appointee, must act appropriately and you must be responsible for and control your political adviser. Well, the prime minister and Jeremy Hunt have acknowledged that he didn’t – that is a breach of the code, not prima facie, it’s just acknowledged.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP and party president, said Hunt had “serious questions to answer”. “I think when all’s said and done, the Leveson inquiry is a separate entity. I think the ministerial code is the right way and the right structure against which Mr Hunt should be judged, but I am prepared to wait and let him put his side of the story – innocent until proven guilty and all that,” he said.
“And I guess we’ve got to remember as well that Mr Murdoch is probably lashing out and trying to bring some people down with him. And while I might not always be tempted to trust the Tories, so to speak, I trust Mr Murdoch even less. So I am prepared to let Mr Hunt have his day in court, so to speak, but he has serious questions to answer.”
Balls told Sky News: “The prime minister is refusing to investigate whether the ministerial code was broken and the code is very clear. If there is an allegation and a doubt – and there is because Jeremy Hunt clearly misled parliament on information, he was clearly a party to this bid when he should have been objective – the code says the prime minister will refer this, it should go to Alex Allan, it should be investigated now.
“I’m afraid the prime minister is trying to brush this away. He’s trying to push it into Leveson, because he’s afraid of scrutiny and he knows the allegation of side deals with News International is about Jeremy Hunt and the prime minister himself. That is the charge.”