Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is to appear before the Leveson Inquiry into media standards on Monday.
Under-pressure Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will give evidence on Thursday, when he will be asked about his office’s links with News Corp during its bid to take over satellite broadcaster BSkyB. Prime Minister Cameron yesterday claimed he did not ‘regret’ asking Hunt to rule on the abortive deal and asserted that Hunt had acted ‘impartially’.
Blair will be questioned over whether his relationship with News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch and the company’s News International subsidiary was too close. Blair’s former trade minister Lord Mandelson told the Inquiry on Monday that the relationship had ‘arguably’ become ‘closer than wise’ but dismissed claims of a ‘Faustian pact’ involving commercial concessions for News Corp in return for support from its newspapers.
Blair travelled to Hayman Island in Australia to address News Corp executives in 1995, as part of a Labour strategy to win over newspapers that had unfavourably portrayed previous leaders Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. He is also godfather to one of Murdoch’s children.
Current home secretary Theresa May is expected to face questioning about police handling of phone-hacking allegations when she appears on Tuesday along with Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Business Secretary Vince Cable and Justice Secretary Clarke will give evidence next Wednesday.
Gove, a former Times journalist, a newspaper owned by News Corp, is expected to be asked about the frequency of his contacts with senior News Corp executives, as 11 meetings were recorded between the May 2010 general election and July 2011.
Hunt will face questions about whether his overt support for the bid was compatible with his job in overseeing it.
Cameron claimed yesterday that there was no ‘great conspiracy’ between him and Rupert Murdoch in return for support for his government but admitted that the relationship between politicians and the press had become ‘too close’. His comments came as Hunt’s former special adviser Adam Smith began his second day of questioning at the Leveson Inquiry.
Smith told the Inquiry that he was ‘bombarded’ with information from News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel. Smith admitted that he was aware that Michel was trying to extract information during News Corp’s bid for broadcaster BSkyB.
Smith resigned last month after admitting his contact with News Corp had got too close. He told the Inquiry that he had ‘no specific instructions’ on the limits to information he could provide to News Corp.
He added: ‘It wasn’t uncommon to give advance notice of certain statements but I would use my judgement on what to say or what not to say.’
Smith said that officials at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport knew that Michel was his point of contact at News Corp and they would have mentioned Michel by name to Hunt on the ‘odd occasion’.
Counsel to the Inquiry, Robert Jay QC, asked Smith why he resigned, saying ‘no one was criticising you – what did you think of that?’
Smith replied: ‘I thought by this stage that the perception had been created that something untoward had gone on, and that was why I’d offered my resignation the evening beforehand. “Everyone thought I’d have to go” was confirmation in my mind that everyone else thought that.’