David Cameron’s top media adviser became the centre of attention himself today when he was inadvertently caught on camera berating a BBC correspondent about a report on the Prime Minister’s relations with Rupert Murdoch.
The five-minute video of Downing Street head of communications Craig Oliver’s exchange outside Number 10 with BBC News chief political correspondent Norman Smith was posted on the Guido Fawkes website, swiftly becoming the talk of Westminster and a top trending topic on Twitter.
In it Oliver – himself a former TV news reporter and editor – objects to a package on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News last Friday which featured a graphic of a spider’s web with the faces of Cameron, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and News Corporation executive James Murdoch.
Apparently unaware that the cameras are rolling and his words are being picked up by a microphone, he tells Smith that he has complained to his boss, BBC Westminster editor Gavin Allen, who he says has told him to expect “a much more balanced thing” on later bulletins.
Oliver said he was “genuinely shocked” by the report, telling Smith: “I have rarely seen such partial reporting of an event and I think Jeremy Hunt will be, rightly, deeply upset by that.”
Accusing the BBC correspondent of broadcasting “opinion rather than impartial reporting of the facts”, Oliver told him: “Saying that the Prime Minister, simply having his name in the same headline as the Murdochs, is a problem, tells you about your mindset.”
He complained that the report had not mentioned that, in a memo to Cameron prior to being given quasi-judicial oversight of News Corp‘s bid to take over BSkyB, the Culture Secretary had said that the decision should be kept “at arm’s length” from Government, or that the most senior civil servant at the Culture Department had that day told the Leveson Inquiry that Hunt had given himself very little room for political manoeuvre by referring the bid to independent regulators.
It was wrong to suggest that Hunt was “lobbying” on behalf of News Corp when he sent his memo to Mr Cameron, as the Prime Minister was taking no part in the decision on the BSkyB bid, said Oliver.
“The Prime Minister has recused himself from this process,” he argued. “If you are going to say he is lobbying, who is he lobbying? Lobbying is lobbying people who have power.”
Smith defended the report, telling Mr Oliver: “You have to form an assessment as to how people view the Murdoch hacking controversy, and I think most people view it as a bad thing and if the Prime Minister is in any way entangled in that, then that of course is bad for him.”
The appearance of Hunt’s memo came after the Culture Secretary told Parliament that he had not intervened in the BSkyB case before being given oversight of it, said Mr Smith, adding: “Looking at that memo, that is an intervention, I would suggest.
“There are claims by Labour he misled Parliament.” Oliver responded: “Labour are making political points – perfectly acceptable political points. Fine, you can report that as much as you want, provided you balance it.
“Effectively having a spider’s web with a picture of the Prime Minister on it and a picture of Jeremy Hunt on it and a picture of James Murdoch on it – I rest my case, I really rest my case.”
As Oliver walks back into 10 Downing Street, Smith pulls a rueful face and says: “Oh dear.”
Downing Street played down the significance of the exchange. A spokeswoman said: “If you watch the video, it is a wholly reasonable conversation about a piece on the Six O’Clock News.”