News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks told David Cameron before he became U.K. prime minister that her company was “in it together” with him in 2009, the week after its Sun newspaper switched its support to his Tory party.
“I’m so rooting for you tomorrow,” Brooks told Cameron in a text message on Oct. 7 that year, the day before his closing speech to his party’s annual conference, according to evidence disclosed at Britain’s media-ethics inquiry yesterday. “Not just as a proud friend, but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!”
The last three words would become the Sun’s headline two days later. One of the conference’s slogans had been “we’re all in this together,” a reference to Conservative austerity plans. The message was read out at the London inquiry as Cameron defended his dealings with News Corp. (NWSA:US) Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his staff.
“I’m surprised that a company executive feels she can address the leader of the U.K.’s oldest political party in this way,” Justin Fisher, professor of political science at Brunel University in northwest London, said in an interview. “It’s unbelievably crass. But it shows how powerful News International perceived itself to be.”
Cameron established the probe in July after revelations about the extent of illegal activity at News Corp.’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid, once the best-selling newspaper in Britain. Murdoch closed the News of the World and dropped his New York-based company’s bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) that month in response to public anger over the phone- hacking scandal. Brooks quit as chief executive officer of News International, News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit, and was charged in a related case.
In five hours of testimony under oath, broadcast live on 24-hour news channels, the prime minister said he hadn’t made any “covert or overt” deals with the company. He denied promising News Corp. support for a takeover of BSkyB, the country’s biggest pay-television company, in exchange for political backing during the 2010 election.
“This idea that somehow the Conservative Party and News International got together and said you give us your support and we’ll wave through this deal -- which we didn’t even know about -- is nonsense,” Cameron told the inquiry.
Cameron defended his move in late 2010 to hand oversight of the bid to Conservative Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, after Business Secretary Vince Cable, from the Tories’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners, was recorded telling undercover journalists he’d “declared war” on Murdoch.
The prime minister said officials had asked a government lawyer, Paul Jenkins, whether Hunt’s prior comments in favor of the bid ruled him out. Jenkins, who was on vacation at the time, said in a statement to the inquiry that he was given “the gist” of Hunt’s remarks by phone and had advised they weren’t an obstacle to giving him the job.
Cameron echoed Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s evidence on June 11 that the offer presented political problems, saying he’d viewed it as a “hot potato,” with media interests both opposed and in favor.
He also defended his 2007 decision to hire as his press chief Andy Coulson, who had resigned that year as editor of the News of the World after one of his reporters was jailed for phone hacking. Cameron said that before hiring him, he’d demanded and received an assurance at a face-to face meeting that Coulson had known nothing about illegality.
“Yes, I accepted these undertakings, but so did a large number of other people,” Cameron said. He said hiring a former News Corp. editor hadn’t been part of a “calculation” to win Murdoch’s support.
Coulson resigned as Cameron’s communications director early last year as the phone-hacking scandal mounted. He was later one of dozens of former News Corp. journalists arrested in police probes into wrongdoing at the company’s U.K. publications.
The 45-year-old prime minister was forced to discuss his personal life as the inquiry lawyer asked about his relationship with the Murdoch family and Brooks, who was promoted to CEO of News International in September 2009.
Cameron said his “level of contact went up” with Brooks when she began dating his school friend Charlie Brooks, who lived near his country home. The Brookses married in 2009.
“I was definitely seeing her more often,” Cameron said. “Not every weekend. I don’t think most weekends.”
He’d earlier said relations between politicians and the press had become too cozy. That “overly close” relationship caused media regulation issues to be put on the “back burner,” Cameron said, according to a reading of his witness statement by the inquiry lawyer, Robert Jay.
Brooks sent the 2009 text to Cameron after he failed to show up at a party thrown by News Corp.’s Times newspaper at the Conservative conference. She’d invited executives to come to the event, following the Sun’s endorsement of Cameron.
“I do understand the issue with the Times,” she said. “Let’s discuss over country supper soon.”
The inquiry has threatened the stability of Cameron’s coalition government as the presiding judge, Brian Leveson, has examined the details of the Cabinet’s handling of the bid for BSkyB. Some phone-hacking victims alleged Murdoch’s relationships with Britain’s leaders helped keep the extent of the phone-hacking scandal from coming to light sooner.
Cameron suggested that hiring Coulson might have made phone hacking more of a story. “This has come back to haunt both him and me,” he said.
The government was blindsided in April when News Corp. gave the inquiry e-mails that showed close contact between Hunt’s office and a News Corp. lobbyist during the time the minister 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 two days ago calling for a ministerial-standards watchdog to investigate him. The Conservatives’ coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats, abstained.
Brooks told the inquiry last month she discussed phone hacking and the BSkyB bid with Cameron before she stepped down. She said she exchanged text messages with him about once or twice a week, which he signed off with “lots of love.”
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 -- 1,404 meetings while he was in opposition, Jay said yesterday.
Cameron, who established the review of media ethics in July, met with Murdoch six times since he became Britain’s leader and on 15 occasions between 2006 and January 2010, when he was leader of the Conservatives in opposition. In 2008, Cameron flew on Murdoch’s son-in-law’s plane and stopped off in Santorini, Greece, to meet with the media mogul on a yacht.
“It was just an opportunity to try to get to know Rupert Murdoch better,” Cameron said yesterday. “Obviously I was trying to win over his newspapers and get across my opinions. It was quite a long way to go, but it was quite an opportunity.”
The Leveson Inquiry has cost 3.2 million pounds ($5 million) and the total cost is expected to be 5.6 million pounds, Hunt said in a written answer to a lawmaker’s question yesterday.
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