After months of anticipation, David Cameron gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry this week, along with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, former prime ministers Gordon Brown and Sir John Major and opposition leader Ed Miliband. He was asked about the News Corp BSkyB bid, his relationship with former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and the hiring of former NoW editor Andy Coulson as director of communications for Number 10.
On Monday morning, the inquiry heard from former prime minister Gordon Brown, who denied giving the Sun permission to run a story on his son’s medical condition. He said the NHS Fife board had sent him a letter of apology, explaining it was highly likely medical details about his son Fraser’s cystic fibrosis were leaked to the press by a member of staff.
Brown – who told the inquiry he had tried to keep his children out of the public eye – contradicted evidence given to the inquiry by Rebekah Brooks, who said she had sought permission from the Brown family before publishing the story. The newspaper had claimed the story came from the father of a fellow patient. He said:
“I find it sad that even now in 2012 member so the News International staff are coming to this inquiry and maintain this fiction that a story that could only have been achieved or obtained through medical information or through me and my wife leaking it, which we never did of course, was obtained in another way. If any mother or any father was presented with a choice as to whether a four month old son’s medical condition, our child’s medical condition, should be broadcast on the front page of a tabloid newspaper and you had a choice in this matter, I don’t think there’s any parent in the land would have made the choice that we are told we made, to give explicit permission for that to happen.”
Asked why his wife Sarah had continued a friendship with Brooks after the incident, Brown called her “one of the most forgiving people I know”. The inquiry previously heard Sarah Brown wrote Brooks a series of personal letters between 2006 and 2011. Brown denied he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch and said an alleged telephone call with the proprietor, following the Sun’s withdrawal of support for Labour in 2009, never took place.
Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel, questioned the former prime minister on the alleged Murdoch phone call. Brown denied the call had ever taken place, saying he had spoken to the proprietor on November 10, 2009, about the war in Afghanistan. The conversation was followed up with an email and three letters. Brown said he was “shocked and surprised” the inquiry heard from Murdoch, and other witnesses including former Cabinet minister Lord Mandelson, that a conversation about the Sun switching support from Labour to the Conservative Party had taken place. Murdoch told the inquiry in April that Brown had said: “Well, your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative but to make war on your company.”
Brown admitted he had a good relationship with Murdoch but said the idea he was influenced by his views while in office was “frankly ridiculous”. He added: “I think the similar background [we shared] made it interesting because I think I understood where many of his views came from. And I do also that he’s been a very successful businessman.”
Brown told the inquiry he instructed his political advisers – including Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride – to follow strict rules and denied asking them to brief against senior ministers, including John Major, Tony Blair and former Chancellor Alistair Darling. He said any claims his staff gave anonymous briefings to the media were without his knowledge or sanction. Last month, former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell told the inquiry there had been a “real problem” with Whelan, Brown’s Treasury adviser. McBride was forced to resign in 2009 after it was revealed he sent a series of email smears about Conservative ministers. He added:
“I can say to you that it is absolutely clear nobody in my position would have instructed any briefing against a senior minister, and Alistair Darling was a friend of mine as well as a senior colleague.”
During the afternoon hearing the inquiry heard from George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said a cabinet secretary suggested Jeremy Hunt take over the handling of News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB. Hunt was given oversight of the bid in December 2010 after business secretary Vince Cable was secretly recorded saying he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch.
Osborne was present at an afternoon meeting with Number 10 on the day the comments were made public, and told the inquiry today it was decided in under an hour that Hunt should replace Cable in the quasi-judicial role following a suggestion from permanent secretary Jeremy Heywood.
He said it had been Heywood’s idea to pass responsibility from Cable to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Osborne sent a text message to Hunt, who had been in contact over Cable’s comments, shortly after the meeting saying: “I hope you like the solution!”
He dismissed a conspiracy theory that Hunt was allowed to handle the bid in News Corporation’s favour after Jay QC suggested the politicians present at the meeting were of the “same community of opinion” that News Corp should be allowed to buy up the remaining BSkyB shares in an £8 billion deal. He said:
“You have to be a real fantasist to believe that come these events, we had knowingly allowed Vince Cable to be secretly recorded, we knowingly allowed the Telegraph not to publish that information, that information then emerges in the middle of the afternoon and we then – all part of this cunning plan – put Mr Hunt in charge. It doesn’t stack up. We were following procedure, process, and I think Mr Hunt followed procedure and process as Secretary of State.”
Osborne told the inquiry today he thought the bid was a “political inconvenience” and assumed from speaking to David Cameron that the Prime Minister had the same view. He said Cable’s comments were wrong but did not merit his resignation or a Cabinet reshuffle. He added:
“It was pretty clear that there were a lot of people out there who were not going to be happy with the deal went through, and equally News International wouldn’t be happy if the bid didn’t go through, but there was nothing they could do or would want to do or should do to influence that process.”
Osborne denied his special adviser Rupert Harrison had lobbied the business department in November 2010, when Cable was still in charge of the bid, after contact with News Corp’s Frederic Michel. Adam Smith, adviser to Hunt, resigned last month over excessive contact with Michel before and after the culture secretary took over the role.
Michel sent Harrison a text message asking the chancellor to send Cable a letter on the proposed merger and its economic importance. Osborne was also asked about the appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as director of communications for Number 10. The pair met in March 2007 to discuss the job. Osborne told the inquiry:
“What we were interested in hiring is someone who was going to do the job going forward. We thought he had the experience and the personality to do that.”
He said he knew hiring Coulson would be controversial and asked the former editor about phone hacking, before calling News International Rebekah Brooks for her professional opinion.
Osborne denied Coulson’s appointment was to obtain contacts or ensure the support of the Sun before the 2010 general election. Coulson was asked last month whether he had underplayed allegations printed in the Sunday Mirror and the News of the World in 2005 that Osborne had taken drugs with dominatrix Natalie Rowe in the 1990s. The former editor told the inquiry:
“‘Top Tory, coke and the hooker’ I don’t think in any way can be described as career enhancing for George Osborne and the idea that we some way or other went easy on him I think it ridiculous when you look at the paper.”
On Tuesday morning former conservative prime minister Sir John Major told the inquiry Rupert Murdoch asked him to change European policy during a private dinner. He alleged he was asked by the proprietor to reconsider the government’s position on Europe, or News International papers would not back the party in the 1997 general election. He told the inquiry he had not spoken about the dinner with Murdoch, Elisabeth Murdoch and his wife Norma, in 15 years but had chosen to reveal the conversation under oath.
Sir John Major – who said he was not an admirer of the proprietor’s activities – contradicted evidence given to the inquiry by Murdoch, who said in April he had “never asked a prime minister for anything”. Major said:
“As I recall, he used the word ‘we’ when referring to his newspapers. He didn’t make the usual nod towards editorial independence. It is not very often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says to a prime minister, ‘I would like you to change your policy, my organisation cannot support you’….it’s not often that point is directly put to a prime minister in that fashion, so it’s not likely to have been something I would have forgotten.”
Major admitted he had been too sensitive to media coverage during his time in office and said he had a more hostile relationship with the press than predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who was admired for turning the convictions and prejudices of proprietors “into political flesh”.
He described a number of personal intrusions by the media into his family, telling the inquiry a journalist had repeatedly followed his son on a motorbike, and someone claiming to be from a hospital had contacted his office in order to find out whether his son’s girlfriend was pregnant. He said his wife had called then Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie after reporters accessed the family’s holiday home to take pictures. The editor allegedly hung up on her after saying “you have no right to privacy”. Major said he had called MacKenzie in 1992 – following Black Wednesday – but did not recall the same conversation as the editor, who told the inquiry he had said: “I’ve got a bucket of shit on my desk, prime minister, and I’m going to pour it all over you”.
Major told the inquiry a distinction should be drawn between the “good, the bad and the ugly” in the press and urged Lord Justice Leveson to protect quality journalism. He added:
“I think if what they put in their papers is grotesque, then I think there is a balance between the freedom of the press to print what they like and the liberty of the individual to be protected from things that are untrue, unfair or malicious.”
During the afternoon hearing, Labour leader Ed Miliband said News International has “too much” control of Britain’s newspaper market and the “arrogance” of Rupert Murdoch’s company came from its 34 percent market share. He asked Lord Justice Leveson to consider a limit on cross-media ownership and said it had been included in the inquiry’s terms of reference during discussions with David Cameron and Nick Clegg. He said:
“I don’t believe that one person should continue to control 37 percent, or it’s now 34 percent post the Sun on Sunday, 34 percent of the newspaper market. My strong instinct is that’s too much and, I would like to see the inquiry looking at the question of whether we should have lower limits. There’s a question of about where these limits should be set. I should say we should have no worries of someone owning up to 20 percent of the newspaper market. I think there is then a question of between 20 percent to 30 percent where you should set a limit. That’s where I’m coming from. I think it’s good for our democracy to have plurality in the market.”
Miliband said there was a huge responsibility on politicians to make sure the inquiry’s recommendations for press reform were enacted and promised the judge he would seek to work with other ministers on a cross-party basis.
The opposition leader admitted he had been too slow to act on allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, calling it a “failure of the establishment”. He added:
“The failure to get to grips with this earlier was a failure on the part of the police who failed to adequately investigate it, and politicians who, with a few exceptions, failed to challenge early enough what was happening.”
Miliband first called for a public inquiry into the scandal on July 5, and told the inquiry he knew he was “crossing a Rubicon” because it would be seen by News International as an act of war. He also called for chief executive Rebekah Brooks to consider her position. Earlier that year, Tom Baldwin – the party’s director of communications – had written to Labour MPs dissuading them from linking News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB with phone hacking.
Miliband said he should have raised phone hacking with Rupert Murdoch at the June 2011 News International summer party. Records showed the he had 15 contacts with the company from September 2010 – when appointed leader of the opposition – until July 2011 but only one since the hacking scandal broke.
He said he spoke to James Murdoch on March 3, 2011 about the BSkyB bid but described it a courtesy call. He took a phone call with Brooks in December 2010 following the removal of business secretary Vince Cable from overseeing the bid.
Jay QC asked whether Miliband was aware Ed Balls, Charlie Whelan or Damian McBride had briefed against Tony Blair when prime minister. Miliband said he had raised concerns with Brown about McBride’s activities in 2009 and Whelan was well-known for briefing, but had no knowledge on Balls.
The inquiry also heard from Harriet Harman MP, who said she had been meeting editors to discuss regulation, said a “moment of opportunity” had arrived and current proposals for a reformed regulator were not good enough. She added:
“I think that we could have a firm cross-party consensus where actually, if the front benches agree, then [the press] don’t need to face a slippery slope because we can give assurances that we would back up what went forward and stop it getting out of shape.”
Miliband said he was unsure PCC chairman Lord Hunt’s proposal for a reformed commission was independent enough from the industry, and said a future body would have to be accessible to ordinary members of the public.
On Wednesday morning the inquiry heard from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg MP, who said enough opportunities have been given to a “pure judge and jury self-regulation method” to prove itself. Clegg said he believed steps needed to be taken to protect freedom of speech, but also to ensure against the abuse of power in the press. He said:
“We’ve given enough opportunities to that pure judge and jury self-regulation method to prove itself and each time it seems to have come a cropper.”
Clegg suggested in his witness statement the press need to have a regulator genuinely free from the interference of editors, proprietors and politicians. He reminded the inquiry of the treatment given by newspapers to the Dowler family and Chris Jefferies, who was wrongly accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates. He said:
“It’s outrageous that innocent people who haven’t asked to be put forward in the public eye at all are destroyed like that.”
In his written statement, he suggested a new regulator should not only be independent from government and media, it should also have the power to initiate investigations and impose meaningful sanctions, liberate journalism in the public interest, and be open to complaints from individuals and third parties.
Referring to the “Desmond problem”, Clegg told Lord Justice Leveson he had not yet heard anyone make a persuasive case that you can have independent regulation with teeth and full participation of all parts that doesn’t involve some sort of statutory backing. He said:
“It’s bad for politics, it’s bad for Parliament, for democracy, it’s bad for the press, it’s offensive and distressing to public to let things carry on as they are.”
During his evidence, Clegg denied having ever discussed the BSkyB bid with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel. He explained they had met socially and formally on a number of occasions when Clegg was in opposition. His children went to the same school as Clegg’s children, in Putney.
He said he asked questions about the timing of the process, and was open-minded on how process evolved, but sceptical about dangers of concentration of power in hands of News Corp. He wrote:
“On several occasions while in government, senior executives and editors have raised their objection and opposition to the BSkyB bid. On these occasions I listened to their concerns but explained that this was a matter for the Secretary of State and had to be dealt with in accordance with his statutory obligations.”
In relation to Vince Cable’s sting by the Telegraph, Clegg said he heard about it at the same time as David Cameron, and thought he should hear from Cable first. He said: “I recognised, and that was partly why I was quite frustrated, that it made it impossible for him to carry on being responsible for the decision.”
Clegg said he sought assurances on the appointment of Jeremy Hunt to oversee the quasi-judicial process. He said:
“I remember asking questions of Gus O’Donnell… if I could be sure the bid would be dealt with objectively and appropriately by Mr Hunt.”
On the current process to decide issues of plurality, Clegg said:
“What is flawed at the moment is that the instruments available to us are quite imprecise. They’re poorly defined. They’re subject to a huge amount of interpretation. Notably, in this case, the plurality test. If you read in the Enterprise Act how the public interest and plurality are defined, you can run a coach and horses through it.”
Clegg was asked about some of his meetings with the Murdochs and senior newspaper executives. A list of the meetings is available on the Leveson Inquiry website. He joked at the inquiry about being sat at the end of the table “where children sit” at a dinner with Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch.
He also said he was never in “anyone’s pocket”, and that before General Elections there was indifference at best and derision at worst by the press towards the Liberal Democrats. When asked whether he believed a “chilling effect” was emanating from the inquiry and its possible outcome, Clegg said that was an important question. He said: “There’s been a slight mawkish quality to some of the more breathless predictions that somehow the press is under the cosh.”
Alex Salmond MSP gave evidence during the afternoon hearing, and told the inquiry he asked the Scottish Sun to back the Scottish National Party and backed the BSkyB bid “as it benefited the Scottish economy”. The Scottish first minister said:
“I believe that my bank account was accessed by the Observer newspaper some time ago, in 1999 and my reason for believing that is I was informed by a former Observer journalist, who gave me a fairly exact account of what was in my bank account that could only be known to somebody who had seen it. For example, I had bought some toys for my then at that time young nieces in a toy shop in Linlithgow high street which was called Fun and Games, and the person who informed me told me that this caused great anticipation and hope in the Observer investigation unit because they believed that perhaps Fun and Games was more than a conventional toy shop. And enormous disappointment when it turned out to be just a toy shop. I have to say that on the high street, it seemed to me unlikely that it would be anything else, but anyway, the point I’m making is the person concerned had detail which could only have been known by somebody who had full access to my bank account at that stage.”
On Thursday, the inquiry heard from prime minister David Cameron. He praised Lord Hunt’s proposals for a new PCC, but thought they should be “rigorously tested” to define whether they can deliver. He had to explain his closeness to Rebekah Brooks, and what steps he took in 2007 to ensure Andy Coulson had had no involvement in phone hacking, before hiring him. He told Lord Justice Leveson newspapers were currently trying to respond to the failure of self-regulation through the work that Lord Hunt was doing with the Press Complaints Commission. He said:
“I’ve looked carefully at what David Hunt is suggesting. I think he has some very good ideas there. I think they have to be rigorously tested as to whether they can deliver independence, penalties, compulsion, toughness, public confidence and all the rest of it.”
Cameron said he did not want to commit himself “too deeply”, despite the fact that he would never forget the meeting with the Dowler family in Downing Street to run through the terms of the inquiry with them and hear what they had been through, “and how it had redoubled, trebled the pain and agony they’d been through over losing Milly”. He said:
“I think as we go at this, we have to understand the real concern there is about statutory regulation. That doesn’t mean you rule it out, but it means try and make everything that can be independent work before you reach for that lever.”
Lord Justice Leveson reminded the Prime Minister that Robert Jay, inquiry counsel, was not suggesting any form of statutory regulation. He said:
“I think what Mr Jay is really getting to is not suggesting any form of statutory regulation, but perhaps a system whereby what was required was described by a statute which similarly provided the same constitutional independence for the press that section 3(1) of the Constitution Reform Act provides the judiciary, and if I occasionally peddle that particular provision it’s because it was an idea I had some months ago. … Which provides the structure onto which a system that is entirely independent of government, of politicians and carries with it perhaps not serving editors but those who have got the experience of the industry as well as independent members would satisfy the criteria which we’ve been discussing.”
Cameron went through an embarrassing moment when Jay QC read out a text message sent by Rebekah Brooks days before his party conference speech, on October 7, 2009. The text read:
“But seriously I do understand the issue with the Times. Let’s discuss over country supper soon. On the party it was because I had asked a number of NI people to Manchester post endorsement and they were disappointed not to see you. But as always Sam was wonderful — (and I thought it was OE’s that were charm personified!) I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!”
The prime minister explained the issue with the Times was that he had not attended the Times party at party conference, and had apologised for it. He said:
“I think that is about the Sun had made this decision to back the Conservatives, to part company with Labour, and so the Sun wanted to make sure it was helping the Conservative Party put its best foot forward with the policies we were announcing, the speech I was going to make and all the rest of it, and I think that’s what that means.”
“I think what [professionally] means is that we were, as she put it, we were friends, but professionally, we as leader of the Conservative Party and her in newspapers, we were going to be pushing the same political agenda.”
He explained the “country supper” invitation was probably due to the fact they were neighbours in Oxfordshire.
Following the evidence given by News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith, the secretary of state himself, Vince Cable, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, it was Cameron’s time to explain his views in relation to the BSkyB takeover bid. He said:
“My view about this and about all these sorts of things is in a free market enterprise economy, you should allow mergers, takeovers, acquisitions to go ahead unless there is a public interest in them not going ahead, so I could quite understand why News Corporation would want to make this acquisition, but there are important processes that had to go through. Competition processes, plurality processes, and the rest of it, so that was my view. It was very important that that happened.”
He explained how the decision to replace Vince Cable after the Telegraph sting was made and explained why it was made in less than 24 hours.
Cameron had a series of meetings with the Deputy Prime Minister, his Chief of Staff, other members of staff, including the Permanent Secretary at Number 10 Downing Street, Jeremy Heywood, “because obviously Vince Cable could not continue adjudicating this bid”. He said Jeremy Heywood came up with the idea of moving the process over to DCMS and Jeremy Hunt, and he thought it was the “neatest and most straightforward way of dealing with this issue”.
Cameron was probed about which steps he had taken to ensure Andy Coulson had not been directly involved in phone hacking in relation to the Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman trial, and that there was no evidence the practice was widespread.
He said Coulson was the best candidate for the job, because of his tabloid background, and because running the news flow when someone is running a political party is “very fast, it’s very furious, and you need someone seriously good at handling it”, so that to him was one of the key qualifications.
On what assurances he had sought on Coulson’s involvement in phone hacking, he said:
“My recollection is that I raised the issue of phone hacking and sought the assurance in the face-to-face meeting we had in my office. That’s my recollection. I vaguely remember the further telephone call, but that’s — I’ve obviously racked my brains to try and remember exactly the sequencing, but my recollection is that I knew it was very important that I needed to ask him that question, and therefore did so, as it says in my evidence.”
At one point, Jay QC asked if Cameron had been made aware of the New York Times piece on hacking, from December 1, 2010, which made direct accusations at Andy Coulson. He said:
“I can’t remember the exact sequence of events that day, but yes, I was made aware of it, and I think the key point is that Andy Coulson directly denied and a statement was put out on his behalf by Number 10 Downing Street about this accusation.”
Cameron explained near the time of his resignation, in 2011, Coulson knew it was time to go, because that was what happened when “the spokesman needs a spokesman”.
The witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry next week are Peter Riddell, Andy Grice, Phil Webster, Jon Snow, Simon Walters, John Lloyd, Tim Colbourne, Giles Crown, Norman Lamb MP, David Mellor, Jillian Brady.
Natalie Peck, is the web reporter for Hacked Off and a PhD researcher examining privacy law and public figures. She is @nataliepeck on Twitter.
Additional material from Hacked Off coordinator Thais Portilho-Shrimpton.