30 May 2012

Cable tells of ‘veiled threats’ over BSkyB takeover

Business secretary Vince Cable tells the Leveson Inquiry of ‘veiled threats’ against his party if he made the ‘wrong decision’ over News Corporation’s bid to takeover BSkyB.

Mr Cable said only told undercover reporters he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch because he felt “under siege” from his media empire and wanted to highlight his independence, he said.

The cabinet minister, who was stripped of responsibility for the media in 2010 when the unguarded comment emerged, strongly denied showing any bias against News Corporation in his handling of its proposed takeover of BSkyB.

But in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into media standards he accused the Murdoch empire of making “inappropriate” approaches to fellow Liberal Democrat MPs in an apparent bid to influence his decision on whether to refer the bid to a watchdog.

He accepted he made comments to two undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph about the bid including the phrase, “I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win”.

‘Tense and emotional’

Mr Cable said he was in an extremely “tense and emotional” frame of mind at the time after “a near riot” outside his constituency office.

When he spoke to the reporters, who he thought were two constituents, he said he offloaded “a lot of pent up feelings” onto them.

This included his anger over the veiled threats against his party.

“I had heard directly and indirectly from colleagues that there had been veiled threats that if I made the wrong decision… my party would be, someone used the phrase, “done over” in the News International press.

“I took those things seriously, I was very concerned.”

When asked who made the “veiled threats” Mr Cable told the inquiry “I believe it was in conversations with [News Corp lobbyist] Mr Michel, but I can’t be certain.”

He said he believed News International newspapers would punish the Lib Dems if he blocked the bid.

He added: “The confrontational way in which my personal views of News Corporation were expressed was due to reports coming back to me of how News Corporation representatives had been approaching several of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in a way I judged to be inappropriate.

Read Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon’s blog post on today’s proceedings.

“The reports suggested that News Corporation representatives were either trying to influence my views or seeking material which might be used to challenge any adverse ruling I might make, following the completion of the Ofcom report.

“These colleagues expressed some alarm about whether this whole affair was going to lead to retribution against the Liberal Democrats through News International newspapers.”

He said it was “a new and somewhat unsettling experience” for a political party which had previously been all but ignored by the big media groups.

“My references to a ‘War on Murdoch’ were making the point, no doubt rather hyperbolically, that I had no intention of being intimidated.

“Clearly, I should not have volunteered my unprompted opinion, even in a private, confidential conversation in a constituency surgery. I subsequently apologised.”

He told the inquiry that he was angry at News Corp’s “systematic attempt” to politicise the bid process.

Mounting influence

Mr Cable said that he had personal concerns about the mounting influence of the Murdoch empire, but insisted that they had not in any way affected his decision to refer the bid to Ofcom.

“In my opinion as a politician, I believed that the Murdochs’ influence, exercised through their newspapers, had become disproportionate,” he said in his written evidence.

Challenged as to whether this was a factor in his decision to refer the takeover bid, he replied: “It most definitely was not. This was not a factor in my decision.”

He said he had a “nuanced” overall opinion of the Murdoch media operation but had never spoken publicly about it.

“I never publicly expressed any views before I became a minister in the department,” he said.

Mr Cable said James Murdoch was wrong to suggest that by refusing to meet him during the bid process he had denied News Corp the chance to make its case – which it had done “fully and forcefully” through appropriate channels.

Bribe attempt

Later, justice secretary Ken Clarke told the inquiry that Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC was drawing up guidance over when journalists who pay for stories could be prosecuted under the Bribery Act.

Mr Clarke also revealed how he was forced to move his bank account after he discovered journalists were trying to access personal information.

He said reporters attempted to bribe staff at his village branch soon after he was appointed chancellor in 1993.

But, in certain cases, he said bribery could be justified, citing the Daily Telegraph’s series of stories exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal as an example.

“I do think journalists are entitled to bribe in an extreme case if it’s the only way in which they can get information about some major public scandal,” he said.