Cast your mind back to the palmy early months of coalition government, back when Andy Coulson was Director of Communications for the government at 10 Downing Street, on £140,000 a year, and Rebekah and Dave could go hacking together without a care in the world.
In mid-June reports confirmed that News Corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch, was holding talks with BSkyB shareholders with a view to acquire the remaining 61 percent of BSkyB.
By October, a coalition of media organisations including the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the the Guardian, the BBC, and Channel 4, were pushing for government intervention. Vince Cable, then Business Secretary, would have got a letter from this coalition making the case that a merger of News Corps, the UK’s largest newspaper group, and BSkyB, the UK’s biggest subscription television service “could have serious and far-reaching consequences for media plurality”.
Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, said on PBS that “such a move would make News Corp too dominant over UK media. “Cable, the relevant minister, will decide whether he wants to refer this. It’s not that they’ve done anything wrong. It’s just that there is a potential of an abuse of power.”
In early August Rupert Murdoch said that News Corp would notify the European Union about the proposal “very shortly”: but they didn’t do so until 3rd November. Vince Cable could then instruct Ofcom to start an investigation: the OfCom report was due on 31st December 2010, and it would then be for Cable to decide if he would refer this to the Competition Commission.
From Financier Worldwide:
Meanwhile, the EU regulator, after examining how the deal might affect the media market in the EU’s 27 member countries, will announce its decision by 8 December. Once this decision is made, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) will have 15 working days to request jurisdiction. Even if the EU approves the deal, any intervention by Cable could lead to the deal being blocked in the UK. The OFT, meanwhile, can try to wrestle control of the approval process from Brussels based on the possible effects on UK competition.
There were clear reasons for Vince Cable to object to the deal. But according to FW:
News Corp does not appear to be fazed by the furore and believed its plan will be cleared. An article published by the BBC on 4 November quoted the corporation as saying, “News Corporation is confident that the proposed investment will not adversely affect media plurality in the United Kingdom and looks forward to discussing any substantive issues with the relevant authorities.”
On Monday 20th December 2010, the Telegraph published a recording of a nasty little trick they’d played on Vince Cable: two journalists, posing as concerned constituents, went to his office and asked him questions about his views on political matters – unknown to him, they had a recorder going.
“I feel quite angry and strongly about this, I’ve had constituency surgeries now for 13 years every week, that’s well over 600. Thousands and thousands of constituents have been to see me, often on very difficult and highly confidential issues which have been respected by me and by them.
Then somebody who isn’t a constituent falsifies their name and address and comes in with a hidden microphone – it completely undermines the whole basis on which you operate as a local MP.”
On Tuesday morning the Telegraph had more revelations from its sting of Vince Cable – comments that Cable made about Murdoch and BSkyB.
“I didn’t politicise it, because it is a legal question, but he [Mr Murdoch] is trying to take over BSkyB, you probably know that. He has minority shares … And he wants a majority. And a majority-control would give him a massive stake.
“I have blocked it, using the powers that I have got. And they are legal powers that I have got. I can’t politicise it, but for the people who know what is happening, this is a big thing. His whole empire is now under attack. So there are things like that, that being in Government … All we can do in opposition is protest.”
By Tuesday afternoon, a whistleblower at the Telegraph had passed to the BBC some more comments that Cable had made about Murdoch:
“I am picking my fights, some of which you may have seen, some of which you may haven’t seen.
“And I don’t know if you have been following what has been happening with the Murdoch press, where I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win”.
By Wednesday 22nd December Vince Cable had been stripped of his role in deciding News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BSkyB and Jeremy Hunt had the job.
What came out today in the Leveson inquiry was that Rupert and James Murdoch was well aware that Jeremy Hunt approved of BSkyB and their planned merger with News Corps, because Hunt’s special advisor had phoned the News Corp head of public affairs, Frederic Michel, on 15 June 2010 – that is, just after News Corps had announced their planned takeover – to tell Michel that there “shouldn’t be media plurality issue [with News Corp's bid for Sky] and believed the UK government would be supportive throughout the process”. Michel recorded this conversation in an email he sent to Murdoch in June.
On 23rd December 2010 James Murdoch discussed the BSkyB bid with David Cameron over dinner at the home of News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks.
Jeremy Hunt phoned Fréderic Michel directly on 15th July 2011 to say that he had just given an interview to the Financial Times. Ahead of publication in the FT, the Culture Secretary told the News Corp head of public affairs that “he didn’t see any problems” with the News Corp bid for Sky.
Plainly it was very good for Murdoch and News Corps that Vince Cable was out and Jeremy Hunt was in. And they were evidently quite confident that this would be so.
I acquit the Telegraph of wanting the BSkyB takeover. But whose idea was it to send the undercover reporters to sting Vince Cable? Who was the whistleblower who made sure the most explosive remarks about Murdoch went public?