Thursday 21 September 2017

Murdoch told Major to change Europe policy

Rowena Mason in London

Rupert Murdoch threatened to stop his newspapers supporting John Major unless the government changed its policy on Europe, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.

The former British prime minister revealed that he met Mr Murdoch before the 1997 election, even though he felt it was "undignified" to court newspaper editors.

Mr Major said Murdoch's newspapers were a negative force in Britain, saying: "Parts of (Mr Murdoch's) media empire have lowered the general quality of the British media. I think the interaction there has done no good either to the press or the politicians."

He added: "I think the sheer scale of influence he has is an unattractive facet in British national life."

In earlier evidence, Mr Murdoch said he had "never asked a prime minister for anything". Mr Major said this may be "strictly speaking true" but claims the newspaper editor clearly made his wishes known at a private dinner with their wives.

"It became apparent that Mr Murdoch didn't like our European policies and he wished me to change," he said. "If we didn't change our policies, his papers could not and would not support the Conservative government."

Mr Major said he made it "pretty clear" to Mr Murdoch that he would not change his policies. He said it was understandable that Mr Murdoch's 'The Sun' ended up supporting Labour in 1997, as Tony Blair was "in many ways to the right" of him.

The former prime minister only had around three meetings with Mr Murdoch, as he did not like the "artificial friendship" between politicians and the media.

"I don't think it is the role of the prime minister to court the press and I think it is undignified if it is done a little too obviously," he said.

His outlook contrasts with the closer social relationship that David Cameron and Tony Blair have had with Mr Murdoch, his son James, and Rebekah Brooks, their key lieutenant.

Mr Major said he rarely met newspaper editors but became "too sensitive" about negative media coverage that caricutured him and his views. He said many stories about him were wrong, including the famous occasion on which Kelvin MacKenzie, the former Sun editor, supposedly threatened to pour a "bucket of s***" over his policies.

Mr Major admitted speaking to Mr MacKenzie on Black Wednesday, when the UK crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, but would have remembered if such language was used.

A News International spokesperson said: "News International titles did not act in unison in the 1997 election. The 'Sunday Times' supported John Major, 'The Times' was neutral, and 'The Sun' and the 'News of the World' supported Labour."

Mr MacKenzie said: "Isn't it amazing how poor the memories of prime ministers become once they leave office. Trevor Kavanagh, the much respected political editor of 'The Sun' was sitting on the sofa in my office and witnessed the entire conversation."

The inquiry also heard a call by Labour leader Ed Miliband for a cap on media ownership and suggested it should be set lower than the proportion of the market currently owned by the Murdoch empire.

Mr Miliband told Lord Justice Leveson he did not believe one person should control 34pc of the British press.

The Labour leader told the Leveson Inquiry he had "no worries" about a company owning 20pc of the British market but said there was a "question of between 20-30pc".

News International held 37pc of the market until the closure of the 'News of the World'. It now retains a 34pc share, the inquiry was told. (©Daliy Telegraph, London)

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