Saturday 16 December 2017

George Osborne tells Leveson he was ‘external’ observer of News Corp’s BskyB bid

Sam Lister, Rosa Silverman and Brian Farmer

CHANCELLOR George Osborne told the Leveson Inquiry that he was an "an external observer" of News Corporation's bid for BSkyB.

Mr Osborne said he did not have a "strong view" on the merits of the bid.

He said he regarded the "whole thing" as a "political inconvenience".

Mr Osborne told the inquiry that he had not had a "strong view about its merits because as far as I could see it was just going to cause us trouble one way or the other".

He said that whichever way it went, it was either going to offend one media camp or another.

Mr Osborne added: "I regarded the whole thing as a political inconvenience and something we just had to deal with, and the best way to deal with it was to stick to the process."

He said he was "merely an external observer of the process" and said he had had no "specific conversations" about it with either Business Secretary Vince Cable, who was initially responsible for it, or Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who later took over responsibility.

The quasi-judicial role was transferred to Mr Hunt after Mr Cable's opposition to the bid was exposed in the media.

Mr Osborne said he had not even been aware of the Prime Minister's view of the bid and said he had had only one conversation with News Corp's James Murdoch about it.

And Mr Osborne dismissed suggestions of a conspiracy around Mr Cable being stripped of responsibility for the bid after he was secretly taped suggesting he had "declared war" on Mr Murdoch.

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 told 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."

Lord Justice Leveson was told of a text exchange between Mr Osborne's special adviser, Rupert Harrison, and News Corporation lobbyist Frederic Michel in November 2010.

Mr Michel had texted asking if Mr Osborne might write to Mr Cable regarding the "Sky merger".

Mr Harrison had replied: "We will have to discuss it with g when he is back from China."

Lord Justice Leveson suggested that Mr Harrison might have replied by saying: "This is a judicial process. We are not interfering. Be off with you."

Mr Osborne told the judge: "He was being diplomatic."

He added: "There were lots of people at the time saying 'the bid should go ahead' or 'the bid should not go ahead' and people were saying things at drinks parties and events of various kinds.

"When you are doing a job like mine or working as a special adviser for someone like myself you get asked about a whole range of things the whole time.

"In this case I think what Mr Harrison was doing is absorbing Mr Michel's texts.

"The key thing is he doesn't raise it with me."

He said Mr Harrison had not behaved "improperly".

Mr Osborne was also asked about a text exchange with Mr Hunt on December 21 2010 - the day Mr Cable was stripped of responsibility for the bid.

Shortly after 4pm, Mr Hunt texted Mr Osborne saying he wanted to chat about the Sky bid and was worried "we are going to screw this up". He then said James Murdoch had concerns about the legitimacy of the process. Mr Osborne texted in reply: "I hope you like the solution."

Mr Osborne today told the inquiry that he meant the solution to the Cable problem.

He explained "My reference here is to the solution to that particular problem - Dr Cable's remarks."

Press Association

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