Rothermere defends numerous meetings with politicians

Lord Rothermere today gave details of dozens of meetings with senior politicians, including David Cameron and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust, which owns the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, described a visit to Chequers in July 2010 with the Prime Minister and his wife Samantha.

The cross-bench peer and Lady Rothermere also spent a weekend with George Osborne and his wife in November 2009, as well as socialising with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

But Lord Rothermere insisted as he gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry that there was nothing improper about the contacts, and stressed that, despite people’s worries about the influence and behaviour of the press, the Daily Mail had “acted ethically”.

He told the inquiry: “I can see why people have concern for the press. After all it does appear to have quite a lot of power and certain elements of our industry have not necessarily acted in the right way, apparently.

“I feel pretty confident that our newspaper has acted ethically and I am willing to stand up for us.”

He accepted that the Mail had to be more protective of its reputation in the wake of the furore about media standards.

“As a leading newspaper we have to take that on board,” the peer said.

“However, ultimately the commercial reputation we have is with our readers and advertisers.

“They continue to read our newspapers and advertise with our newspapers.”

In 2002 and 2003 he had a number of meetings, including lunches and dinners, with politicians including Brown, Blair and Clegg.

But he said that in social meetings, politicians rarely discussed “special interests” with him.

“In a full meeting, for example where you go to and there’s public servants there then there’s an agenda and you can talk about the issues that you want to discuss,” he said.

Commercial interests

But he said in personal engagements, politicians would talk about “what they are trying to do with the country and their vision”, as well as sometimes complaining about papers not supporting them.

“But they don’t talk about the commercial interests of our newspapers, nor do I encourage them to,” he said.

Lord Rothermere said he had sent just two text messages to ministers – one to Clegg and one to Cameron – after the public debate before the last general election, in which he said he wrote: “Congratulations on a job well done”.

“That’s the only two text messages I can recall ever sending them,” he told the inquiry. Meetings with politicians were not efforts to secure favours, he said, adding: “There’s no reason for us to have done that. There’s no favours that we sought anyway.”

During the July 2010, weekend at Chequers with Cameron, Hunt and his wife Lucia, and Education Secretary Michael Gove and his wife, he did not discuss the Murdoch empire’s BSkyB bid.

“The only conversation I had with any minister about media issues was when Jeremy Hunt arrived, we talked a bit about local TV,” Lord Rothermere said.

“Jeremy was very passionate about his ideas for local TV and wanted us to be a core participant of that and he talked to me briefly about that.

“But it was in passing, it was perhaps less than a few minutes conversation, and that was the only thing that we discussed.”

He was “absolutely positive” they had not discussed the BSkyB bid, he said.

Neither was the bid discussed at a meeting with Hunt and his deputy Ed Vaizey on August 25, 2010, at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

‘Friendly weekend’

Asked by Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, whether it was definitely not mentioned on either occasion, Lord Rotheremere said: “At Chequers it was a friendly weekend, we were getting on, I didn’t want to bring up business.”

He said “it’s sort of rude to do that” when you are invited by someone else, “even if it is the Prime Minister, on a friendly basis”.

He added: “With Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey, we had a strict agenda and I didn’t feel it was appropriate to bring it up either.”

Lord Rothermere met George Osborne several times in 2010, as well as having several dinners and spending a weekend with Gove and his wife.

He said he talked about the economy with Osborne, and about education with Gove.

On meetings with politicians, he said if he had specific issues to discuss, he preferred it to be in a business environment “where everything is on the record”, and added: “Frankly I think it protects them, and it protects me, from insinuations of undue access.”

During his evidence, he also discussed clashes with Daily and Sunday Express owner Richard Desmond.

“I was not that offended by it, he seemed to think the fact that I have an illegitimate son is of some concern.

“I am very proud of my son, he is a member of my family. We go on holiday together and my children are very proud to call him their brother, and I don’t make a secret of it and the idea that I am offended by it is slightly offensive.”

He also spoke of his “regret” over the coverage of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance.

“As a parent you would have to be inhuman not to feel deeply about what the McCanns went through, and I was no different from anybody else.

“Once the McCanns complained, we immediately rectified and gave them compensation.”

Asked about regulation, he said: “I believe that the establishment and many members of the public do not believe that self regulation has worked, and so therefore it has not worked.”

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