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Cable tells Leveson that Murdochs' influence 'had become disproportionate'

By Ben Glaze, Joe Churcher and Katie Hodge

Business Secretary Vince Cable will today face questions at the Leveson Inquiry over his handling of News Corporation's takeover bid for satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

Vince Cable told the Leveson Inquiry today that he was able to use "an independent mind" to judge News Corp's controversial bid for BSkyB.

The Business Secretary was responsible for deciding whether Rupert Murdoch's proposed takeover of the broadcaster should go ahead before being stripped of his powers in December 2010 when he was recorded telling undercover journalists he would "declare war" on Murdoch while he was considering the £8 billion bid.

Mr Cable said today: "With an independent mind doesn't mean with a blank mind.

"Most people in public life have views, opinions.

"Probably, if they are politicians, those views and opinions have been on the record and the requirement on me and people in this position is to set those on one side for the sake of making this decision, to consider representations, the evidence, the facts - and decide on that and only on that."

The Cabinet Minister said he followed the maxim: "If you can't ride two horses at once you shouldn't be in the circus."

And he defended his conduct as he weighed up the bid, which has since been abandoned, which would have seen News Corp buy the remaining 61% of BSkyB which it does not already own.

Mr Cable said: "All the decisions in the department were subject to advice from officials (and) departmental lawyers, because they were conscious that if a decision was made with bias or perceived bias then legal action could be taken, in this case through the Competition Appeals Tribunal - equivalent to a judicial review."

He said he was careful about whom he met "because any meeting would have to corroborated" and pointed out explicitly referring to the deal "could be perceived as bias".

Mr Cable told the inquiry he was previously responsible for quasi-judicial decisions when in charge of planning as a Glasgow city councillor in the 1970s.

He said: "I was conscious at that stage what quasi-judicial responsibilities meant.

"Look at other councillors involved in planning - and there are thousands upon and down the country.

"I think we are conscious of the need to be independent and put aside one's views in order to make a fair decision based on the evidence, and that context was quite a difficult one.

"There were well-known figures in the city and publicans and property developers who were quite controversial, who made their views well known, and we had to negotiate our way through that in order to make impartial decisions."

Mr Cable told the inquiry that he had personal concerns about the mounting influence of the Murdoch empire, but insisted that they had not in any way affected his decision.

"In my opinion as a politician, I believed that the Murdochs' influence, exercised through their newspapers, had become disproportionate," he said in his written evidence.

Challenged as to whether this was a factor in his decision to refer the takeover bid, he replied: "It most definitely was not. This was not a factor in my decision."

He said he had a "nuanced" overall opinion of the Murdoch media operation but had never spoken publicly about it.

"I never publicly expressed any views before I became a minister in the department," he said.

Mr Cable said the "vast majority" of representations made to his office were in favour of intervening in the merger and he defended his decision to discuss the question of media ownership with political colleagues.

Talks with the party's culture spokesman Don Foster and other relevant colleagues were solely to help him better understand the question of media plurality and the thinking behind the legislation, he said.

That was not something he had been au fait with in his role as the party's economic spokesman before the 2010 election and the formation of the coalition Government, he said.

"I was not seeking their opinion as to whether the merger was good or bad," he said.

Neither was the BSkyB issue discussed at all by a meeting of the party's business advisory group of Lib Dem-supporting experts, he insisted, when it looked at competition policy more widely.

There were no discussions about the bid with party colleagues Simon Hughes or Chris Huhne, he added.

Mr Cable was also challenged over why he ended up intervening when his initial legal advice was that such a course was unlikely to be appropriate.

He said one factor was a previous court judgment over what proportion of share ownership was relevant, which he believed did not make sense.

From a non-lawyer's perspective it seemed a "very weak argument" that a shift to 100% share ownership was not a significant factor as that opened the way to a change of board and then of editor, he said.

He also cited the fact that BSkyB provided news to commercial radio and to Channel 5 as evidence that the takeover could have "wide ramifications" for editorial policies in the UK media.

Official advice also suggested that the prospect of a legal challenge by opponents of the bid against a decision not to intervene was higher than the prospect of a BSkyB legal challenge against an intervention.

The inquiry heard that News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel kept executives updated on the progress of the bid and in June 2010 reported back on a conference call with the Business Secretary.

"Vince Cable call went very well," he wrote in an email.

"He did say he thought 'there would not be a policy issue in this case'.

"We should have recorded him."

Mr Cable denied ever making the remarks, telling the inquiry: "I almost certainly did not say that and I am confident that I didn't say it.

"I have explained to you earlier, there were several officials listening into the call.

"They would have made a note of that and they would have taken me to task if I had said it."

Earlier, he told Lord Justice Leveson he turned down opportunities to meet Mr Michel, saying there were compelling reasons not to do so.

While tasked with considering the BSkyB bid, he told Lord Justice Leveson his special adviser (Spad) had "no responsibilities to speak for me".

"I certainly didn't give him any responsibility," he told the inquiry, insisting he was "aware of the sensitivity" of the issue.

His comments come as Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who took over responsibility for the bid from Mr Cable, faces questions over disclosures about his personal dealings with the lobbyist.

Adam Smith, Mr Hunt's former Spad, stepped down last month after it emerged he had repeated contact with Mr Michel.

Mr Cable told the inquiry the lobbyist tried to "set up an interview" with one of his Spads but this was declined "knowing my views on the matter".

Asked if rumours that he met with the coalition "against the bid" were correct, Mr Cable issued a robust denial telling the hearing: "They were completely incorrect."

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