Former Tory minister Ken Clarke MP has launched a wide-ranging attack on the power of the Murdoch family in evidence to the Competition and Markets Authority.
Urging the body to reject Rupert Murdoch’s £11.7bn take over of Sky he revealed how, as Justice Minister in 2010, then chief executive of Murdoch’s News International Rebekah Brooks described herself as “as running the government now in partnership with David Cameron”.
He said that she “began instructing me on criminal justice policy” and speculated that Cameron did a deal with Murdoch in order to persuade The Sun to shift its allegiance from Labour in the 2010 general election.
Clarke said: “I do fervently believe in free speech. I believe in a rumbustious and disrespectful media that are constantly bashing them about and holding them to account…”
But talking about the excessive political influence of the press, he said: “I think I know that both Blair and Cameron had many rules of how you actually manage the modern media.
“One was if you want to win an election you have got to have The Sun and if you want to keep in power you have got to have the Daily Mail.
“Constant communication to the proprietors trying to get the editorial line switched to your party, was a key part of the struggle of recent years. Great deals were done.
“Quite how David Cameron got The Sun out of the hands of Gordon Brown I shall never know. Rupert would never let Tony down because Tony had backed the Iraq war.
“Maybe it was some sort of a deal. David would not tell me what it was. Suddenly we got the Murdoch empire on our side.”
Talking about his time as Justice Secretary in the Coalition Government in 2010, he said: “Within a week or two we had got [former News of the World editor] Andy Coulson on board – I think he was Murdoch’s man, that was part of the deal I assume – as the press officer. I am not being totally indiscreet.
“Nobody seemed bothered by it very much. Within a few weeks of taking over my Prime Minister arranged a meeting with Rebekah Brooks.
“Rebekah Brooks described herself as running the government now in partnership with David Cameron.
“I found myself having an extraordinary meeting with Rebekah who was instructing me on criminal justice policy from now on, as I think she had instructed my predecessor, so far as I could see, judging from the numbers of people we had in prison and the growth of rather exotic sentences.
“She wanted me to buy prison ships because she did accept that the capacity of the prisons was getting rather strained, putting it mildly, it was not the way I described it. She really was solemnly telling me that we had got to have prison ships because she had got some more campaigns coming, which is one of her specialties.
“I regarded this as a very amusing conversation and took not the slightest notice. As long as I was Justice Secretary we would not have any of this. I do not think my successor needed any prompting from Rebekah so it all went back to the norm.”
Talking about the “quite considerable” power of the Murdoch family he said: “I know Rupert. I have met Rupert. The idea that Rupert is interested in a detached influence in the politics of the countries where he owns his media; anybody who knew him, you could not put that proposition to them without them breaking in to a very broad smile…
“The idea that we allow the owner of Fox News to buy Sky News, assuming he will resist the temptation and be a changed man who will carry on running according to British broadcasting standards, entirely impartial … Believe that, you believe anything.”
He later said: “I am absolutely amazed – and give her great credit for it – that the Secretary State has referred this whole thing – she has surprised me – to you.
“Perhaps you might be the first time that we ever stop anybody acquiring a media outlet in the United Kingdom.
“I think in the present state of the political debate, I am now becoming an old man saying it is not what it was. But we do have a particularly low level, a ridiculous level, of public debate in this country at the moment.
“It does become ever more tempestuous, scandal ridden, shock horror crisis and all the rest of it. It would be a great thing if we could stop and protect objectivity. The television world is still very crucial.”
Talking about the power and influence of the press, he said: “The trouble is, particularly since we got rid of civil service press officers and brought in all these experts and all the rest of it, the public relations machine, political leaders are obsessed with newspapers.
“Therefore, the politicians are schooled to believe that above all else you have got to do what you can to capture the support of these newspapers.
“We do go through patches where you begin to think the policy is being made in order to get a headline in The Daily Mail and not according to what is the impact going to be in two or three years’ time if we take this decision.
“What is it going to deliver by way of the public good and therefore some enhancement of your own reputation, because you have been seen to do something.
“Right now there are a lot of people in the machine who are totally obsessed with the idea that to have support of the media proprietors when they control their newspapers and outlets, is absolutely an essential part of holding power.”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “We are here because we have deep concern about the impact that this bid by the Murdochs would have on our media landscape and our public discourse.
“Nobody contends that the Murdochs do not have control over their newspapers. Rupert Murdoch said: ‘If you want to know my thinking read The Sun’. He said that to the Leveson inquiry. We contend it will be the same in relation to Sky. So they would have control.
“The largest newspaper group, the third largest provider of TV news, the supplier of radio news to almost every commercial radio station and an online reach for The Sun and Sky News alone of 70 per cent of internet users, according to Ofcom. This would give them the opportunity not just with their newspapers to influence other broadcasters but to use Sky News to forward that agenda.
“On the Iraq war 175 Murdoch owned newspapers supported the Iraq war, zero Murdoch newspapers opposed the Iraq war. They speak with one voice.”