David Cameron Calls Suggestion of Deal With Rupert Murdoch 'Nonsense'

David Cameron - P 2012
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The British prime minister tells the Leveson Inquiry that his Conservative Party had no overt or covert deal to ensure favorable news coverage from News Corp. papers in return for political favors, including on the firm's BSkyB bid.

LONDON -- The idea that he or his Conservative Party struck a deal with News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch before the 2010 election here is "nonsense," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday.

Speaking at the Leveson Inquiry, which has explored the relationships among the media, politics, the police and the public, Cameron said there was no overt or covert agreement to ensure favorable coverage from the media giant in return for political favors, including News Corp.'s later deal proposal to acquire full control of pay TV operator BSkyB.

Critics have said that the Cameron administration has been too cozy with News Corp. and its representatives.

Cameron emphasized that during the election, which swept him into power, his party didn't even know about News Corp.'s plans to offer raising its stake in BSkyB from 39 percent to 100 percent.

"This idea the Conservative Party and [News Corp.'s U.K. newspaper unit] News International got together and said 'you give us your support and we will wave through this merger' -- which, by the way, we didn't even know about [back then] -- is nonsense," Cameron said.

"Of course I wanted to win over newspapers" to win the elections and political arguments but not in return for policies that newspaper owners were hoping for, Cameron said. "There are plenty of examples of policies that I believe in that the people who backed me don't believe in."

The Leveson Inquiry has reached to the highest levels of British politics this week with Cameron's appearance following testimony under oath from former Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and John Major, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband,  leader of the opposition Labour Party.

Cameron's comments came after a Wednesday afternoon vote in the House of Commons about the future of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has been criticized as being too News Corp.-friendly in his review of the BSkyB bid, which the conglomerate ultimately dropped amid the phone-hacking scandal. Hunt survived the vote.

Cameron on Thursday also confirmed that then-News International chairman James Murdoch, Rupert's son, told him personally that the company's Sun tabloid would back his party in the last election after years of support for the Labour Party. Asked if the younger Murdoch pushed his views on needed changes to the BBC and media regulator Ofcom, Cameron said no.

He also described James Murdoch as very passionate about industry and other issues. "He is particularly enthusiastic about defense," Cameron said, adding that Murdoch, for example, would rather have six instead of two U.K. aircraft carriers out in the world.

Cameron also said that he does not agree with James Murdoch on the BBC. While the executive has called for an end to its license fees, the prime minister said the public broadcaster was the "cornerstone of British broadcasting." As such, "you need the license fee," he said.

In broader comments about the state of media, Cameron argued that politicians and media have grown "too close," which leads to risks and the "potential to do the public harm." 

He said he doesn't think the regulatory system works and that the "overly close relationship [of politicians and media] permitted regulation issues to be put on the back burner." Politicians should focus not on "sitting under a 24-hour news cycle screen looking at the ticker" but rather on longer-term issues. Overall, he said about the tricky relationship, "We need to get it on a better footing."

Cameron shrugged off the suggestion made by some that politicians in the future should keep notes on all meetings with media representatives, arguing that it would be "overly bureaucratic."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com
Twitter: @georgszalai