Chancellor George Osborne has met senior News Corporation executives including chairman Rupert Murdoch and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks on 16 occasions for talks and social events since taking office.
The meetings form part of what appears to have been a determined effort by the company to forge personal contacts with key ministers as its aborted bid to take over satellite broadcaster BSkyB was going through.
Prime Minister David Cameron has already confirmed that he met News Corp executives 26 times after entering 10 Downing Street.
Yesterday, other ministers released details of their contacts with the media, revealing a number of dinners, lunches and other meetings with Murdoch, his son James – News Corp’s chief executive in Europe – and Brooks.
Cameron ordered the release of the information earlier this month in the wake of controversy over allegations of phone-hacking at News International’s News of the World.
There is no indication of whether the issue of hacking was raised at the meetings, or whether ministers discussed News Corp’s plan to buy up the 61% of BSkyB which it did not already own.
Murdoch ditched the takeover plan on July 13 amid the hacking furore, which has seen the arrest of several News Corp figures including former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who quit as Cameron’s communications chief in January.
Today’s data shows that Murdoch was quick off the mark in getting to know the new administration after the formation of the coalition Government in May last year, meeting Cameron, Osborne, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Education Secretary Michael Gove within days of them taking office.
He was the first senior media figure to meet Hunt after he took on the culture brief, though their meeting came before the Culture Secretary was given responsibility for deciding on the BSkyB bid in December.
Osborne met Rupert Murdoch twice – the second time in December – and also had five separate meetings each with Brooks and James Murdoch as well as discussions with editors of News International papers The Times, Sunday Times and News of the World.
The Chancellor made no public comment about his meetings but was understood to be “relaxed” about having the details in the public domain.
But Labour MP John Mann said the disclosure was “not enough” and demanded details of what Osborne talked about with News Corp bosses.
“We now need full access including the publishing of the minutes from these meetings,” said Mann.
“In particular we need to know the details of his December 2010 meetings and exactly what was said about the BSkyB bid.
“This information is particularly important because George Osborne was the person who initiated the Andy Coulson appointment.”
Cable keeps distance
Business Secretary Vince Cable, who was initially given responsibility for deciding whether the BSkyB bid should go ahead, kept his distance from News Corp executives, today’s disclosures reveal.
Cable met Times editor James Harding in December, though it is unclear whether this was before or after he was stripped of his media responsibilities that month after being caught on tape boasting that he had “declared war” on Murdoch. He also attended a Sunday Times business lunch last April.
Hunt met Rupert Murdoch at an evening reception and dinner in May last year, then met James Murdoch the following month for a general discussion.
Following his assumption of quasi-judicial responsibility for the BSkyB takeover in December, he had two further meetings with James Murdoch in January this year to set out the process around the proposed merger.
Today’s release also revealed that Education Secretary Michael Gove has met News Corp executives on 11 occasions since the general election in May 2010.
Gove, a former journalist for The Times, met Rupert Murdoch seven times and Brooks eight times at events including lunches, dinners and social gatherings.
A spokesman for Gove said: “Michael worked for the BBC and News International and his wife works for News International now.
“He’s known Rupert Murdoch for over a decade. He did not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs and isn’t at all embarrassed about his meetings, most of which have been about education, which is his job.”
A number of other ministers, including Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Defence Secretary Liam Fox recorded meetings with News Corp figures.
Pressure on shadow Cabinet
Meanwhile, Conservative Party chair Baroness Warsi called on the shadow Cabinet to reveal its meetings with media executives.
“This Government is delivering unprecedented transparency, from local councils to the heart of Whitehall,” she said.
“Ed Miliband now needs to come clean. Where is his list of shadow cabinet media meetings?
“He was late in publishing his engagements with senior media executives. Then he only published his meetings back to September.
“Finally, under pressure, he then gave details back to May. On top of this the Labour leader then had to correct his list to include an extra appointment with News International, fuelling suspicion that he chose a September cut-off to keep hidden a meeting with Rebekah Brooks.
“Instead of trying to score political points, Ed Miliband should get his own house in order.”
Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham said: “It reveals a lot about Michael Gove’s priorities that he has found time to meet with News Corps executives 21 times since he became Education Secretary – including meeting Rupert Murdoch on seven separate occasions – but in his first seven months in the job he didn’t manage to visit a single sixth form college, further education college or special school.
“It’s clear evidence of a minister who has got his priorities seriously wrong.”