David Cameron will face his toughest grilling since becoming prime minister in 2010 when he appears before the U.K.’s media-ethics inquiry to answer questions about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Cameron’s scheduled 5 1/2 hours of testimony to Judge Brian Leveson in London today will take place under oath, be broadcast live on television and will deal with his private life and friendships.
The prime minister’s line on his government’s handling of News Corp.’s 2010 bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) is likely to be close to that of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who told Leveson on June 11 he’d had no view for or against it, beyond seeing it as a “political inconvenience.” Cameron will repeat statements that his former press chief, Andy Coulson, assured him he’d known nothing about phone hacking in his time editing Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid.
“Most of the damaging information is out already, so this is likely to be a damp squib,” Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Nottingham University, said in an interview. “But there may be awkward moments as they get into the areas where policy and friendships overlap.”
Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry last July, after evidence emerged of widespread hacking at the News of the World, leading News Corp. (NWSA:US) to shut the newspaper, Britain’s biggest- selling, and abandon the BSkyB bid.
The premier’s judgment was questioned for his hiring of Coulson in 2007. He’d quit earlier that year as News of the World editor after one of his reporters was jailed for hacking. Cameron defended his press chief amid newspaper reports in 2009 that hacking had gone beyond that single reporter. Coulson joined Cameron in the government before resigning at the start of 2011.
The former editor was charged last month with perjury in relation to evidence he gave in a Scottish court case in 2010. He denies the charge.
The prime minister’s contacts with News Corp. have been the subject of increased scrutiny since he set up the inquiry. The probe has heard testimony about a Christmas dinner with James Murdoch and a horse-riding outing with Charlie Brooks, husband of former News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks.
Rebekah and Charlie Brooks appeared in court yesterday charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in connection with phone hacking. They deny the charges.
Preparations for the inquiry have seen Cameron’s office compile a list of every journalist he’s met since becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 2005. The prime minister has had the help of a senior lawyer as he gets ready for a full day of questioning.
The government was initially sufficiently relaxed about Leveson’s inquiry that ministers didn’t apply for “core participant” status, allowing them advance sight of evidence. That left them blindsided in April when News Corp. produced e- mails that showed close contact between Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s office and a News Corp. lobbyist during the time Hunt was deciding on the BSkyB bid. One of Hunt’s aides resigned the following day.
Hunt survived a Commons motion by the opposition Labour Party yesterday calling for a ministerial-standards watchdog to investigate him. The Conservatives’ coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats, abstained. Cameron said yesterday that he’ll use his appearance to propose changes to the rules governing ministerial aides.
Two former prime ministers, Labour’s Gordon Brown and the Conservative John Major, testified to Leveson this week about their dealings with Murdoch, as well as Osborne, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland.
Cameron said when he announced the inquiry that he wanted to see former prime ministers called, and he has repeatedly pointed to Labour’s attempts to get close to News Corp., whose newspapers make up a third of the British market by circulation.
Brown denied that, saying the Conservatives had been given the support of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper in the 2010 election in return for compliance on media policy. Osborne, speaking later the same day, rejected that.
Clegg yesterday contrasted his own Liberal Democrats with both the larger parties. “I’m lucky enough to lead a party that’s never been in anyone’s pocket,” he told Leveson, going on to suggest that other politicians should “get up off their knees.”
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