British PM dismiss claims there were covert deals with Murdoch
BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron last night dismissed claims that his party made covert deals with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire as he faced a grilling at Britain’s media ethics inquiry.
In eagerly awaited testimony to the Leveson inquiry, Mr Cameron admitted, however, that British politicians had become too close to newspapers and said that the relationship needed to be better regulated.
“The idea of covert deals is nonsense,” Mr Cameron said, responding to suggestions that his Conservative Party treated Mr Murdoch’s News Corporation, ultimate owner of The Australian, favourably in exchange for positive coverage.
“I also don’t believe in this theory that there was also a nod and a wink and a covert agreement,” he added.
Mr Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry in July last year after the News of the World was shut down in the wake of a public outcry when it emerged the tabloid had hacked into the phone of a murdered schoolgirl.
As the scandal worsened, the Conservative-led government’s links to the Murdoch empire came under scrutiny, particularly as it was responsible for deciding on a News Corp takeover bid for pay-TV giant BSkyB.
Mr Cameron said British politicians generally had become too close to newspapers, without mentioning Mr Murdoch.
“It has been too close and I think we need to try and get it on a better footing,” Mr Cameron told the inquiry, led by senior judge Brian Leveson.
There should be “greater transparency, better regulation, having a little more distance” in the future, the Prime Minister added.
Mr Cameron has faced criticism for the way his government handled Mr Murdoch’s bid to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting, a lucrative satellite broadcaster in which it already had a 39 per cent stake.
His ties to Mr Murdoch have also been questioned because he hired former NoW editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief and was close friends with top editor Rebekah Brooks.
Mr Cameron defended his ill-fated decision to make Mr Coulson his communications director, even though he had already been tarnished in the hacking scandal.
Mr Cameron said he chose Mr Coulson because he was looking for a tough man for a tough job. I felt he was a very effective individual,” Cameron said of Coulson. He said Coulson had done a good job as communications chief and performed his duties honourably.
“This has come back to haunt both him and me,” he said.
Mr Coulson has since been charged with perjury in a case touched by the phone hacking scandal. Mrs Brooks was charged last month with three counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice – an offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Brooks’s husband, Charlie Brooks, also faces charges in the scandal. Mr Cameron conceded that he had many social contacts with Mrs Brooks and her husband and also met James Murdoch for drinks occasionally.
He said James Murdoch had told him over drinks that The Sun would back his party in a general election, switching its support to Mr Cameron’s Conservatives.
In his testimony, Mr Cameron spelled out his media strategy when he became Conservative Party leader, saying he tried to “win back” newspapers that had traditionally backed his party, but had been successfully wooed by former prime minister Tony Blair.
He said he courted Mr Murdoch’s newspapers, but never “traded” policy decisions in exchange for editorial support, adding that talk of a conspiracy with Mr Murdoch’s company was “nonsense
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