Murdoch: Brown complained over Sun's war coverage - Press Gazette

Murdoch: Brown complained over Sun's war coverage

  • Brown complained The Sun’s coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, inquiry hears
  • Former PM Brown not in a ‘balanced state of mind’
  • Tony Blair was a ‘personal friend’, says Murdoch
  • Murdoch: ‘We have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers’
  • Moguls admits he is closer to the Sun than the News of the World
  • ‘The Sun Wot Won It’ headline was ‘tasteless and wrong’

Gordon Brown complained to Rupert Murdoch about The Sun’s coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Leveson Inquiry heard today.

The News Corporation chairman and chief executive said he felt a “personal connection” with the former prime minister and holds him in “high personal esteem”.

But he admitted that his relationship with Mr Brown suffered after The Sun switched its support from Labour to the Conservatives in September 2009.

Mr Murdoch said in a written statement for the inquiry: “It appears that the topics I discussed with Mr Brown during his time in office included spending, budgets, healthcare, the strength of the pound, the efforts of Mr Blair and Mr Brown to chart a new course, the creation of an entrepreneurial society, the future of the Conservative party, (Afghan president) Mr Karzai and Mr Brown’s unhappiness with The Sun’s reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Even when he was displeased with our editorial coverage, Mr Brown extended warm wishes to my family, to which I reciprocated.”

The media tycoon said he and the former prime minister bonded over their shared Scottish heritage and discussed the fact they were both descended from a long line of Presbyterian ministers.

He said: “He gave me a lovely gift: a book of his father’s sermons. My wife and his also developed a friendship and my children and his played together. For some period of time, I contributed to Mrs Brown’s charity. I certainly thought we had a warm personal relationship.”

Mr Murdoch added: “My personal feelings about Mr Brown did not change my view that, just as I had earlier concluded that the Conservative party had grown tired in its approach in 1995, I concluded in 2010 after 13 years of Labour party rule that the country needed a change.

“I am afraid that my personal relationship with Mr Brown suffered after The Sun no longer supported him politically. I continue to hold him in high personal esteem.”

Brown not in a ‘balanced state of mind’

Gordon Brown was not in a “balanced state of mind” when he called Rupert Murdoch to “declare war” on his company, the media tycoon went on to tell the Leveson Inquiry today.

Murdoch said Brown called him after the Sun switched its allegiance to the Conservative Party in September 2009.

The newspaper’s former editor Kelvin MacKenzie previously said Brown “roared” at the 81-year-old for 20 minutes and declared war on him.

Murdoch today told the inquiry that MacKenzie’s account was a “colourful exaggeration”, playing down the conversation, but went on to say that Brown was not in a balanced state of mind.

“Mr Brown did call me and said, ‘Rupert, do you know what’s going on here?’, and I said, ‘What do you mean?’.”He said, ‘Well the Sun and what it’s doing and how it came out’.

“And I said, ‘I am not aware of … I was not warned of the exact timing, I’m not aware of what they are saying, I am a long, long way away. But I am sorry to tell you Gordon, we have come to the conclusion that we will support a change of government when and if there is an election. Not if, but when there is an election’.

“And he said – and I must stress no voices were raised, we were talking more quietly than you and I are now – he said, ‘Well, your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative but to make war on your company’.

“And I said, ‘I’m sorry about that Gordon, thank you for calling’, and end of subject.”

Asked by counsel for the inquiry how Mr Brown might have “made war” on his company, Murdoch said he did not know, but added: “I did not think he was in a very balanced state of mind.”

Brown’s ‘totally outrageous’ statement

Murdoch told the inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice that Mr Brown made a “totally outrageous” statement after the phone hacking scandal broke, suggesting the story in 2006 about his son Fraser having cystic fibrosis had been obtained illegally.

The media mogul, whose wife Wendi Deng and son Lachlan were in court, said: “He later, when the hacking scandal broke, made a totally outrageous statement which he had to know was wrong, when he called us a criminal organisation.

“Because he said that we had hacked into his personal medical records, when he knew very well how The Sun had found out about his son, the condition of his son, which was very sad.”

He said the newspaper had been contacted by a father in the same position as Brown, giving them the information. Brooks (former editor Rebekah Brooks( immediately snatched it from the newslist and said, ‘let me handle this’.

“She called Mrs Brown and said, ‘look this is going to be out, we should be careful, how would you like it handled?'”

Murdoch said the story was published a few days later, and added: “Mr Brown wrote a personal letter to Mrs Brooks thanking her for her sensitivity and the way she handled the story. I believe that letter is in the hands of the police.”

Tony Blair a personal friend

In his statement, Murdoch said he had been impressed by Tony Blair for a long time and today regards him as a personal friend.

The inquiry heard the then-Labour leader travelled to Hayman Island in Australia to address the annual News Corporation conference in July 1995.

Murdoch admitted he may have made the comment, reported by Blair: “If our flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, then I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines, very very carefully.”

But Murdoch denied his relationship had ever led to any favours from the prime minister. “You are making sinister inferences,” he told Jay.

“I want to say that I, in 10 years of his power, never asked Mr Blair for anything. Nor indeed did I receive any favours. If you want to check that, I think you should call him.”

He told the inquiry he saw Mr Blair two or three times a year. It’s not as though there was a constant approach or daily text messages as happened with some newspapers,” he said. “We had no such relationship.”

The inquiry heard that all of Murdoch’s newspapers backed the Gulf War in March 2003, and that there were three phone calls between Blair and Murdoch that month.

‘I don’t believe in using hacking’

Murdoch defended the right of newspapers to investigate people in public positions, including MPs, celebrities and even newspaper proprietors.

He gave the example of The Sun’s recent publication of revelations from a new biography of music mogul Simon Cowell.

“I don’t believe in using hacking, I don’t believe in using private detectives or whatever,” he said.

“I think that is just a lazy way of reporters not doing their job. But I think it is fair when people are held up as great, or have themselves held up as iconic figures or great actors, that they be looked at.

“We’ve just seen an example of it with Mr Simon Cowell. He wanted to have it all himself.”

Murdoch praised the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of MPs’ abuses of the parliamentary expenses system.

He said: “I really welcomed – I was jealous of – the Daily Telegraph buying all the personal expense accounts of the Members of Parliament…

“I thought that was a great public service. I have to say that I am disappointed the editor of The Times didn’t buy them when they were offered to him first.”

The billionaire told Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, there was nothing sinister about his contacts with prime ministers.

“I go to an election every day, Mr Jay. People can stop buying my newspapers any time – often do, I’m afraid,” he said.

“And it’s only natural for politicians to reach out to editors, and sometimes proprietors if they are available, to explain what they are doing and hoping it makes an impression and it gets through. But I was only one of several.”

He added: “If any politician wanted my opinions on major matters, they only had to read the editorials in The Sun.”

Putting ‘myths to bed’

Murdoch earlier said he plans to “put some myths to bed” in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

The 81-year-old said rumours he had not forgiven Prime Minister David Cameron for setting up the inquiry were untrue.

Giving evidence, he said he welcomed the probe: “I think the need is fairly obvious, there have been some abuses shown. I would say there have been many other abuses but we can all go into that in time.

“The state of the media in this country is of absolutely vital interest to all its citizens. Frankly I welcome the opportunity because I wanted to put some myths to bed.”

Murdoch admitted he was a “great admirer” of Baroness Thatcher – who the Sun supported in the election of 1979.

Asked by Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, about tweets suggesting he had a “hostile approach to right-wingers and toffs”, the billionaire replied: “Don’t take my tweets too seriously.

“I think I was really saying that the extremists on both sides were piling in on me.”

‘Every side of the story’

At the start of today’s hearing at London’s Royal Courts of Justice, Lord Justice Leveson said he would “hear every side of the story” about Jeremy Hunt’s involvement in News Corporation’s BSkyB bid before drawing any conclusions.

The inquiry heard evidence from Mr Murdoch’s son James yesterday suggesting the Culture Secretary secretly backed the proposed takeover and leaked inside information to the media giant.

James Murdoch was questioned about a 163-page dossier of emails detailing contacts between Mr Hunt’s office and News Corp director of public affairs Frederic Michel.

Lord Justice Leveson said today: “I understand entirely the reason for some of the reaction to the evidence yesterday and, in particular, to the emails about which Mr Murdoch was asked.

“But I am acutely aware from considerable experience that documents such as these cannot always be taken at face value, and can frequently bear more than one interpretation.

“I am absolutely not taking sides or expressing any opinion, but I am prepared to say that it is very important to hear every side of the story before drawing conclusions.

“In due course I will hear the relevant evidence from all the relevant witnesses, and when I report I will then make the findings that are necessary for me to fulfil the terms of reference that the Prime Minister set for me.”

‘I have never asked a prime minister for anything’

Murdoch, News Corp’s chairman and chief executive, said he has never asked a prime minister for anything.

He was questioned about a lunch with then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher at Chequers on January 4 1981 at which he discussed his plans to buy The Times and The Sunday Times.

Jay asked him: “Were you seeking to demonstrate to her that you were the right man to acquire these great papers because you had the qualities and charisma to take the papers forward, and, equally importantly, you had the will to crush the unions?”

Murdoch corrected him, saying: “No, I didn’t have the will to crush the unions. I might have had the desire, but that took several years.”

The media tycoon pointed out that he did not ask Baroness Thatcher for any favours, and she did not offer him any.

“I have never asked a prime minister for anything,” he said.

Asked about his negotiations around the Times and Sunday Times newspapers, which he bought from the Thomson family in 1981, Murdoch said: “Let’s face it, if an editor is sending a newspaper broke, it’s the responsibility of the proprietor to step in for the sake of the journalists, for the sake of everybody.

“And particularly his responsibility to his many thousands of shareholders. That did not apply to the Thomsons, which was private.”

‘We have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers’

Murdoch rejected suggestions that he is a “Sun King” figure who uses his charisma to exert his authority over his worldwide media empire.

He dismissed the characterisation of his managerial style in the new 2011 preface to former Times and Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans’s memoir Good Times, Bad Times.

Sir Harold wrote: “How much Rupert Murdoch knew and when he knew it may not be pinned down because he exercises what the sociologist Max Weber defined as ‘charismatic authority’, where policy derives from how the leader is perceived by others rather than by instructions or traditions.”

Murdoch said he runs News Corp “with a great deal of decentralisation”.

“I try very hard to set an example of ethical behaviour and make it quite clear that I expect it,” he told the inquiry.

“One can describe that in a number of ways. But do I do it via an aura or charisma? I don’t think so.”

Murdoch also denied claims that he used his titles to promote his business interests.

He said: “I take a particularly strong pride in the fact that we have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers.”

Aim is ‘always to tell the truth’

Asked if standards improved or declined at his newspapers between 1968 and 1981, Murdoch said “I think we expanded to a new, young public” and he saw an opportunity for the title to go against the Mirror.

“I think the Sun has never been a better newspaper than it is today,” he said. “I couldn’t say the same for my competitors but we won’t go into that.”

The tycoon denied putting commercial interests before ethics.

He said his aim was “always to tell the truth, certainly to interest the public, to get their attention, but always to tell the truth”. “I have great respect for the British public and I try to carry that through.”

He was asked by Jay about Sir Harold Evans’s book Good Times, Bad Times. Sir Harold was editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 then moved to The Times, but left just a year later, resigning over policy differences relating to editorial independence.

The inquiry heard that in March 1982 Murdoch was said to have told former Times assistant editor Fred Emery that he was considering firing Sir Harold.

When it was suggested he could not do it without the approval of independent directors, the tycoon reportedly said: “Why wouldn’t I give instructions to The Times when I give instructions to editors all around the world?”

But the 81-year-old said today: “I do remember meeting Mr Emery and I don’t know what he told Mr Evans, but I know what he told me, which was ‘you are facing an insurrection in the staff against Mr Evans’.

“He was the only editor of The Times that we have ever asked to leave.” He said he only remembered ever discussing policy with Mr Evans once.

“He came to me, shut the door behind him and said ‘Look, tell me what you want to say, what do you want me to say and it needn’t leave this room, but I will do it’.

“And I said to him ‘Harry, that isn’t my job. All I would say to you, and this is the nearest I have ever come to an instruction, was to please be consistent. Don’t change sides day by day, I am not saying political stories, but on issues’.”

Closer to the Sun than the News of the World

Murdoch also denied suggestions by journalist Roy Greenslade that he was one of the powers behind Margaret Thatcher’s “throne”.

He said he never gave instructions to editors. “Sometimes when I was available on a Saturday I would call and say ‘What’s the news today?’. It was idle curiosity, perhaps.

“Other times I would ring on a Tuessday from New York when the Sunday Times came in, and I would say ‘That was a damn fine newspaper you had this week’. I perhaps wouldn’t have read the editorial.”

The mogul admitted being closer to the Sun than the News of the World.

“I am a curious person who is interested in the great issues of the day and I am not good at holding my tongue,” he told the inquiry.

“I am not disowning it or saying it wasn’t my responsibility, but I was always closer to the Sun. It was a daily paper, there was always something more urgent about it.”

Asked about the publication of Hitler’s supposed diaries – later found to be fakes – by the Sunday Times in 1983, Murdoch said late historian and then Times director Lord Dacre declared them genuine.

“Later, when it got closer to the time of publication, very close to the time of publication, I think people were debating it. Lord Dacre then showed doubts.

“And I think the majority of us felt we should go ahead, and I take full responsibility for it. “It was a massive mistake I made and I will have to live with for the rest of my life.”

‘The Sun Wot Won It’ headline was ‘tasteless and wrong’

Asked about his relationship with Baroness Thatcher, Murdoch said he could not remember telling former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, after the newspaper decided to support Michael Heseltine over her: “We owe Thatcher a lot as a company, don’t go overboard in your attacks on her.”

He admitted giving former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie a “bollocking” after the headline “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” appeared on the front page of the newspaper in April 1992 following the Conservatives’ general election victory.

He said: “I thought it was tasteless and wrong for us. It was wrong in fact – we don’t have that sort of power. I think some papers you can recognise as having very strong Conservative roots and some very strong Labour roots, but I can’t say that of the Sun.

“I think we are perhaps the only independent newspaper in the business.” He denied only backing “winning candidates”, saying: “I try to judge the candidate on the issues.

“I never let my commercial interests, whatever they are, enter into any consideration of elections.”

He said he did not remember leading politicians trying to curry favour with him, adding: “Has the Sun got a large audience? Yes, certainly.

“Do people follow everything we say? Certainly not. We hope that by raising issues and so on we can have influence on things we believe in, but it’s not political parties as such.

“Our approach to public affairs is to decide issue by issue.”

He added: “I have no commercial interests except the newspaper, I love newspapers”, but said his shareholders would like him to “get rid of them all”.

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