Guto Harri intends to use the post to ‘combat hysteria’, but move may reignite claims of Murdoch-Tory links
A key former aide to Boris Johnson, the London mayor, has been appointed as head of News International’s communications team to help the beleaguered media company restore its reputation in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.
The decision to appoint Guto Harri, a former BBC political correspondent who had served as Johnson’s director of external affairs for four years until less than two weeks ago and was widely seen as the Tory mayor’s most trusted adviser, will surprise many at a time when the close relationship between senior Tories and News Corporation has become a source of embarrassment for David Cameron.
Harri confirmed that he had turned down offers from a “luxury manufacturing company and a large public affairs firm” in favour of working for News International, a company he praised as delivering “first class journalism” and whose staff, he believes, have been unfairly tarnished because of a “few rotten apples”.
Harri, a Welsh speaker born in Cardiff, said he was “totally reconciled” that his move to News International, after four years with Johnson, would be seen in the media as “part of an irresistible geometrical pattern” between the Conservatives and News International.
Harri’s appointment at News International comes five years after he narrowly missed out on becoming David Cameron’s director of communications when the then Tory opposition leader opted to give the job to Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World. Coulson quit the Downing Street post last year amid pressure about phone hacking at the newspaper on his watch.
Harri joined Johnson at city hall in May 2008 after being one of the Conservative mayor’s first appointments on winning office.He said he had never been a card carrying member of the Conservatives or any other political party. “So I’m not a senior Tory who is suddenly jumping ship choosing, you know, ‘one evil man over another’.”
In his new job, which starts on Monday, Harri said he intended to “combat some of the hysteria that is rife in British public life”. “Not every politician is corrupt, not every banker gets an enormous bonus and doesn’t think they give a monkey’s for anything, and not everyone who works at News International was involved in phone hacking,” he said.
He added: “I know very good people who write for the Times and for the Sun and they are first class journalists and they are very decent people and again one of the reasons why I am more than happy, I’m delighted to take the job, is that those people cannot be tarred with the same soggy brush as just a few people who were either involved in criminal activity, which is a matter for the courts, or you know, were seemingly out of control.”
Harri was head of Johnson’s media operation when the mayor dismissed allegations of widespread phone hacking at News International as politically motivated “codswallop” in September 2010. He insists this was just Johnson’s own colourful way of repeating the “cold blooded advice” he received at the time from the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police John Yates.
Harri, who spent 18 years as a journalist and did a brief stint in public relations before joining Johnson in city hall, said he was first approached for the NI job by a headhunting firm over Christmas but made it clear he had no intention of leaving Johnson until he was re-elected this month.
He said no one in Conservative circles had sought to dissuade him from taking up his role at News International in the light of the continuing revelations about the party’s close links to the media firm, saying he had confided in only a handful of friends.
“Boris was more preoccupied with preventing me leaving city hall than trying to dictate to me where I should choose to … the only issue for him was whether I was at city hall or not, it’s my professional choice for better or worse to choose one company over another.”
Harri, a married father of three, replaces Andrew Honnor, who held the position in an interim capacity, and will answer directly to NI’s chief executive, Tom Mockridge, to whom Harri paid tribute on the eve of joining the company for his handling of the phone-hacking scandal.
“I would not be joining this company myself if I thought that they condoned, and were actively involved in, any of the practices that they have rightly been condemned for and I cannot think that the people I have met and the man I will be reporting to is I think without doubt the person most determined to clean up any lingering odour of bad practices.
“I cannot think of any company in history – and this does go to the very top from the man himself in New York – that spends millions of pounds employing people to trawl the bowels of their own servers in order to find evidence to hand over to the police to actually convict their own staff.
“They are being extremely robust and arguably brutal about cleansing up the past, and they are not only disciplining people internally, they are handing over evidence to the police.”
Speaking just before flying to New York on Sunday evening for a two-day visit to company headquarters, Harri dismissed the findings of the Commons culture and media select committee, which concluded this month that Rupert Murdoch was “not fit to run an international company”, as a “political point-scoring exercise” by the Labour members on the committee.
Harri, who is expected to meet Murdoch during his trip, said: “If he’s not fit to run a company than I’m sure the board or the shareholders would have something to say about that, and they didn’t. Share prices went up that week and the board gave its unanimous support for him.”
In a swipe at Tom Watson, a Labour member of the culture and media committee and a vocal critic of News International and its parent company, Harri said: “Let’s call it exactly what it was, is a political point-scoring exercise that was not endorsed by the Conservatives on the committee so it was not the view. Select committees rightly carry weight when they give all-party consensus on the basis of a near-judicial or near-professional judgment call. This was not that. This was a very effective Labour politician harnessing the committee and the opposition majority upon it to make a statement that was disowned by the Conservatives on the committee.”
Harri was speaking at his west London home in a room where a crate of Châteauneuf du Pape was stored, sent as a private joke by Johnson together with a lengthy thank you note for his four years of service.
Harri said he never doubted that Johnson would win a second term as mayor, but in a veiled swipe at election strategist Lynton Crosby, who spearheaded Johnson’s re-election campaign, he said he believed Johnson’s majority of fewer than 63,000 votes could have been a more comfortable win if the campaign had not chosen to take the “bubbles out of the champagne”.
“It’s fair to say that Boris came across in the campaign as a little less charismatic, a little less broadminded and a little less attractive even than the Boris most of London has seen over the past four years.”
Harri hinted at a difference of opinion over strategy which saw the mayor appeal to the core Tory vote during the seven weeks of the election period after four years of work to make him attractive to people “who generally would not vote Conservative”. This had involved authentically “pitching out in all directions”, from supporting an amnesty for illegal immigrants to engaging with Muslim communities, black churches and the gay community, while at the same time also batting for core Tory issues such as calling for the top rate of tax to be reduced to help the business community in the capital.
“That was almost the danger of the campaign, that he became more Tory at a time when being Tory seemed to be more of a liability than an asset.”
While the campaign was “quite right” to focus on Johnson’s priorities of creating jobs and growth in the capital “maybe they didn’t quite have the confidence in Boris that I have that the more people see the real Boris, the more they like him, not the other way around.”
Harri paid tribute to the campaign for its “enormous energy and commitment” and to Crosby personally for being a “strategic and logistical genius”, but goes on to say that while he has “huge respect for the core Tory vote, it’s not enough to win an election”.
“In the end Lynton Crosby is extremely experienced and capable and has fought elections all over the world and you can’t deny that he has been campaign manager twice now and Boris has been re-elected so I pay tribute to his enormous skills, but I still think that Boris was undersold. It’s not that the core things they focused on are not important, it’s just not there are other things that are important to.”