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Ex-Murdoch lobbyist says no backchannel with UK government over media bid

posted 24 May 2012, 11:10 by Mpelembe   [ updated 24 May 2012, 11:12 ]

An ex-Murdoch lobbyist and the former special advisor to the British government minister responsible for media mergers and acquisitions both appear before a UK inquiry into media ethics.

Ex-Murdoch lobbyist Fred Michel said on Thursday (May 24) there had been no "back channel, covert communication" with the British government in relation the News Corp's bid for BSkyB in 2011.
Lead Council Robert Jay told the Leveson Inquiry that evidence showed very high levels of communication between Michel and Adam Smith, former special advisory to British government minister Jeremy Hunt.

"Overall, over the period June 2010 to July 2011, we have counted the following: 191 telephone calls, 158 e-mails, 799 texts of which over 90 percent were exchanged with Mr. Smith," said Jay to Michel.

"Does that feel about right?" he asked.

Michel could not confirm numbers but said he trusted Mr. Jays counting.

However, Michel said he had had no inappropriate contact with the minister, Jeremy Hunt, while he was deciding whether the $12 billion bid would impair media plurality in Britain.

Many of the messages appeared to show News Corp and Hunt having a common goal of satisfying regulators examining the deal - although Michel claimed not to know whether Hunt was in favour of it or not.

Revelations last month about the extent and nature of the contacts between News Corp and Hunt's special adviser, Adam Smith, sparked calls for Hunt to resign.

Smith resigned the following day but Hunt described as laughable the accusation that he had given News Corp special treatment, allowing an impression to pervade that Michel had exaggerated his influence.

Following Michel, Smith entered the inquiry room. After taking his oath, smith told Jay and the inquiry that he didn't think Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt was close to News Corp or News international.

"He didn't really have that much of a relationship with either of the Murdochs or the chief executive of News International. He tended to deal, as the inquiry has seen, mainly with Mr. Michel, but I wouldn't have said he was particularly close to News Corporation, no. I mean he met with them in the same way he met with other media organisations; actually, far less frequently," said Smith.

News Corp, headed by Rupert Murdoch, was eventually forced to drop its bid for BSkyB last year by after an uproar over a phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch's Sunday tabloid, the News of the World.

But until then it had looked likely that the then Murdoch-friendly Conservative government would approve the deal, which was controversial because of Murdoch's already extensive newspaper and broadcasting assets in Britain.

Relations between the Conservatives and Murdoch have cooled markedly since Prime Minister Cameron began to distance himself in light of the scandal, with Murdoch's newspapers going on the offensive against the government.