by Cora Currier ProPublica
In front of a British government panel today, Rupert Murdoch denied that he tried to wield political influence or use his media holdings to further the business interests of News Corp.
“I take particular pride in the fact that we’ve never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers,” Murdoch said at the media ethics inquiry brought on by the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World last year.
He was responding to questions about contacts between News Corp. and government officials in connection with the company’s attempted $12 billion takeover of BSkyB, Britain’s top satellite TV network.
But email messages released Tuesday indicate that News Corp. executives at least considered dispatching top editors of The Wall Street Journal Europe and The Times of London, both News Corp. holdings, to advocate the BSkyB deal.
The newly released emails, totaling 163 pages, were exchanged among News Corp. chief lobbyist Frédéric Michel, company officials and government aides. Several refer to Lord Matthew Oakeshott, a member of Parliament whom News Corp. perceived as key to influencing Vince Cable, the government minister who had the authority in the fall of 2010 to approve the BSkyB deal.
News Corp. execs were worried that Oakeshott wouldn’t be receptive to their overtures. In one email to James Murdoch’s aide, Matthew Anderson, and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive at News International, Michel described Oakeshott as “a difficult character [who] hates lobbying (and doesn’t like our empire either…).”
So Michel, the lobbyist, suggested that they arrange a meeting between Oakeshott and James Harding, editor in chief of The Times. From the email, dated Oct. 12, 2010:
It was suggested that we should try a very soft approach with him; get him meet with James Harding to get his views on some of BIS key items, like migration cap; and get me to pop in at some stage to give him an update on the current battle we face and inform his views. It would be a much better setting than a direct lobbying conversation. Do we think it’s ok?
On Oct. 18, Michel wrote that Oakeshott would also be “VERY receptive” to a message from Patience Wheatcroft, then the editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe:
Lord Oakeshot said he would be VERY receptive to a message from Patience on this: Matthew can we discuss asap?
That November, Wheatcroft left The Journal after she was named to the House of Lords as a member of the Conservative party, by Prime Minister David Cameron.
It is not clear whether Harding and Wheatcroft were actually asked to lobby Oakeshott. A spokeswoman for Harding said that “there was never a meeting between James Harding and Lord Oakeshott,” but did not say whether News Corp. officials had asked Harding to have such a meeting. Wheatcroft did not respond to our requests for comment, nor did Oakeshott.
A News Corp. spokesman declined to comment on any of the emails.
Apart from raising questions about Rupert Murdoch’s claim that there was no use of his media holdings to further his company’s interests, the emails document a more general strategy to turn media coverage of the deal in favor of News Corp. in order to give political cover to the minister, Vince Cable, who could approve the deal:
-the adviser was very clear that if we try to agressively push Cable, it will have a negative impact. But changing the narrative in the main media would help him politically a lot and help him inside the Cabinet.
Cable was removed from the bid approval process after he was recorded by journalists saying he had “declared war” on Murdoch. Cable was replaced by Jeremy Hunt, with whom News Corp. appears to have had more luck — the emails point to close communication between Hunt’s aide and News Corp. about how best to push approval of the BSkyB buyout. Hunt said Wednesday that he “didn’t know the volume of those communications or the tone” of the interactions between his aide and News Corp. The Guardian also reported Wednesday that in 2009 Hunt was at News Corp. headquarters in New York during the company’s meetings on whether to launch the bid.
News Corp. threw the support of its British newspapers behind Cameron’s Conservative party in the 2010 elections, shortly before the BSkyB bid was announced. Cameron has maintained that he had had no “inappropriate conversations” with Murdoch about the deal.
Competing news organizations and others had opposed the deal because they said it would further concentrate the media power of Murdoch, who controls 40 percent of Britain’s newspaper circulation. The bid was eventually put on hold when news of phone-hacking by Murdoch papers broke last summer and engulfed the company in scandal.