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Leveson: 'Under siege' Vince Cable declared war on Murdoch

Business Secretary Vince Cable only told undercover reporters he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch because he felt "under siege" from his media empire and wanted to highlight his independence, he said.

The cabinet minister, who was stripped of responsibility for the media in 2010 when the unguarded comment emerged, strongly denied showing any bias against News Corporation in his handling of its proposed takeover of BSkyB.

But in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into media standards he accused the Murdoch empire of making "inappropriate" approaches to fellow Liberal Democrat MPs in an apparent bid to influence his decision on whether to refer the bid to a watchdog.

He said his outspoken declaration of "war", for which he apologised, was a direct result of that pressure.

In written evidence to the inquiry, he described how he was approached by the reporters, posing as female constituents at a constituency surgery which was already tense because of a protest outside.

Apart from that taking away his concentration, he said, "the confrontational way in which my personal views of News Corporation were expressed was due to reports coming back to me of how News Corporation representatives had been approaching several of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in a way I judged to be inappropriate.

"The reports suggested that News Corporation representatives were either trying to influence my views or seeking material which might be used to challenge any adverse ruling I might make, following the completion of the Ofcom report.

"These colleagues expressed some alarm about whether this whole affair was going to lead to retribution against the Liberal Democrats through News International newspapers."

He said it was "a new and somewhat unsettling experience" for a political party which had previously been all but ignored by the big media groups.

"My references to a 'War on Murdoch' were making the point, no doubt rather hyperbolically, that I had no intention of being intimidated.

"Clearly, I should not have volunteered my unprompted opinion, even in a private, confidential conversation in a constituency surgery. I subsequently apologised."

He told the inquiry that he was angry at News Corp's "systematic attempt" to politicise the bid process.

Mr Cable said 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 James Murdoch was wrong to suggest that by refusing to meet him during the bid process he had denied News Corp the chance to make its case - which it had done "fully and forcefully" through appropriate channels.

"I was approached by numerous people during this period who wanted to discuss the bid but I always maintained the view that I could not discuss it further and asked them to put their views in writing," he said.

Mr Cable said he believed News International newspapers would punish the Lib Dems if he blocked the bid.

"I was angry at the way this was being dealt with. I was concerned on two levels: first, there was a systematic attempt to politicise the process, to imply somehow or other the process was governed by Liberal Democrat politics, which it wasn't," he said.

"Secondly, and more seriously, I had heard directly and indirectly from colleagues that there had been veiled threats that if I made the wrong decision from the point of view of the company, my party would be - I think somebody used the phrase 'done over' in News International press.

"I took those things seriously, I was very concerned."

Mr Cable, who refused to say who tipped him off to the threats, added: "I had myself tried to deal with the process entirely properly and impartially and I discovered this was happening in background."

The Business Secretary also explained his comments to the undercover Telegraph journalists posing as constituents, claiming he was "offloading" after a bad day at the office.

He said: "In order to explain the rather emotional way in which I dealt with this, and the very strong language, it is important to understand there was a near riot taking place outside my constituency office, people were trying to force entry and we had the police present trying to calm the situation.

"In order to prevent the disorder getting out of control, I invited some of the protesters into my office. I had a very long discussion with angry people upbraiding me about Afghanistan, Palestine, student fees, capitalism and other things and some people waving a camcorder a few inches from my face.

"I was struggling to keep my temper.

"At the end of the interview when I had finally seen them out I was in an extremely tense and emotional frame of mind."

He went on: "I am normally very calm in dealing with difficult situations.

"I did offload on them a lot of pent-up feelings not just about the BSkyB case I was dealing with, but about my colleagues in Government and a variety of issues in language that I wouldn't normally use in what I thought was a private, confidential conversation."

Asked if he intended to halt the take over, Mr Cable said: "No, my intention was to have the matter properly reviewed by the regulator because I judged that, under the process that I had, it satisfied the necessary tests for an intervention.

"So it wasn't my intention, I was constrained by the process and I fully accepted that so I acted entirely properly."

Under questioning at the inquiry, Mr Cable said he was confident that he was able to act in a quasi-judicial role - making decisions on issues such as takeovers without being influence by personal views.

"With an independent mind doesn't mean with a blank mind," he said.

"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 - where he had also experienced undue pressure.

The cabinet minister denied claims by News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel that he had stated that there would "not be a policy issue" with regard to the takeover in the course of a conference call.

"Vince Cable call went very well," Mr Michel wrote in an email to executives.

"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."

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."

Belfast Telegraph


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