Peer blasts delay on Blair/Murdoch query

A peer, who has been campaigning for the Government to reveal the dates of meetings and telephone conversations the Prime Minster has had with Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond, using the Freedom of Information Act, has criticised Government delays.

The Information Commissioner’s Office this week ruled that the Cabinet Office must reveal the dates of the meetings, which Liberal Democrat Lord Avebury has been attempting to obtain for more than a year.

Cabinet Office minister David Miliband initially rejected the request, which Avebury made in April last year, on the grounds that it would increase pressure on the Prime Minister’s diary by creating the expectation that he would have similar conversations with other people. But the ICO accepted Lord Avebury’s argument that the public interest in understanding the media moguls’ political influence outweighed the exemption.

Despite winning his appeal, Lord Avebury is concerned the ICO may have come under pressure from the Cabinet Office while making its decision.

The decision notice indicates that following a meeting with Cabinet Office officials on 21 June, the ICO had changed an earlier draft of the decision “in the hope that this might obviate an appeal to the tribunal”, which would have added months to the delay.

“The Information Commissioner’s Office disclaim the use of the word ‘blackmail’, but that’s what I call it,” Lord Avebury told Press Gazette.

An ICO spokesman denied the charge that its officials had been threatened with a lengthy government appeal.

Lord Avebury said: “I can’t believe that many people would be persistent enough to go through all these delays.

It’s only because it’s part of my job that I can carry these things through, but I think an ordinary citizen would find this almost insuperable.” The Lib Dem peer said he was interested in the dates of Tony Blair’s meetings with Murdoch between 2002 and 2005 because of their possible proximity to Government decisions in which Murdoch is known to have an interest, such as the Iraq war and the Communications Bill.

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