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Murdoch inquiry date spells trouble for UK govt

Rupert Murdoch's appearance before a press ethics inquiry today threatens to heap pressure on the British government after its links to the tycoon's empire were exposed during yesterday's evidence.

world Updated: Apr 25, 2012 08:27 IST

Rupert Murdoch's appearance before a press ethics inquiry on Wednesday threatens to heap pressure on the British government after its links to the tycoon's empire were exposed during Tuesday's evidence.

News Corporation boss Murdoch will appear before the Leveson inquiry to answer questions over his British newspapers and his links to UK lawmakers, a day after his son James was quizzed over the company's ties to the government.

The inquiry, set up after the tabloid phone-hacking row, on Tuesday heard how James got regular confidential updates from the government over News Corp.'s bid for full control of pay-TV giant BSkyB.

In a dramatic day of evidence, a string of emails from the Murdochs' media empire revealed the closeness and frequency of News Corp.'s contacts with advisors to culture minister Jeremy Hunt.

British newspapers on Wednesday suggested Rupert Murdoch could use his appearance to twist the knife into a government which he believes made him a scapegoat during the scandal that dominated last summer's headlines.

James Murdoch, 39, admitted on Tuesday he had discussed the proposed takeover at a 2010 Christmas party with David Cameron -- though the prime minister has previously denied having had any "inappropriate conversations."

But the top News Corp. executive denied that Hunt had been an active "cheerleader" within government for the now-abandoned takeover bid.

However, transcripts of text messages between Frederic Michel, News Corp.'s public affairs executive, and Adam Smith, special advisor to Hunt, appear to reveal close collaboration over how to counter the deal's opponents.

In one text published on the inquiry's website, Michel wrote: "Think we are in a good place, no?", to which Smith replied: "Very yes. Jeremy (Hunt) happy."

In another, Michel appears to question why the process was taking so long, saying "You did tell me by 24th June".

Smith responded: "And that hasn't changed. But we can't tell journalists that can we!"

News Corp. was forced to drop its attempt to take control of the highly profitable BSkyB in July after its British newspaper wing was engulfed by a phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World tabloid.

But it would have been Hunt's role to make a quasi-judicial decision on whether to allow the deal to go through, although his remit was purely to examine whether it threatened plurality in the media.

As the string of emails was aired, bookmakers stopped taking bets on whether Hunt would be forced to resign as demanded by Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party.

"I myself have said all politicians, including Labour, became too close to the Murdochs but this is in a completely different league," Miliband said.

Hunt later said he had acted with "scrupulous fairness" and said he had written to Leveson asking for an early appearance before the inquiry "to resolve this issue as soon as possible."

In his statement, Hunt claimed some of the meetings mentioned in the emails "simply didn't happen" and that he had followed the advice of independent regulators throughout the process.

He also accused his critics of "jumping on the political bandwagon".

Cameron's spokesman insisted the prime minister continued to have full confidence in Hunt, whose remit also includes being the lead minister during the 2012 London Olympics.

Wednesday's newspapers turned the screw on the government, with The Guardian, which uncovered much of the hacking scandal, running with the headline "Minister for Murdoch".

The Financial Times carried "Murdochs turn tables on Cameron and Hunt" on its front page, the Daily Mail "Revenge of the Murdochs".

In Tuesday's session, James Murdoch was also quizzed about his stewardship of News International, News Corp's newspaper wing which published the now-defunct News of the World.

Murdoch denied that the News International tabloid The Sun, Britain's biggest-selling newspaper, had backed the Conservatives in the 2010 general election to advance the BSkyB bid.

He admitted he was "friendly" with Britain's finance minister George Osborne and had discussed the bid with him informally on at least one occasion.

The hacking scandal reverberated across the British establishment, claiming the jobs of two senior policemen who had ties to the News of the World and sparking the resignation of Cameron's media advisor, a former editor of the tabloid.

First Published: Apr 25, 2012 08:23 IST