A Liberal Democrat minister has told the inquiry News Corporation lobbyist Fred Michel made “veiled threats” to the coalition over the BSkyB bid.
Norman Lamb – minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs – told the Leveson Inquiry today he met with Michel at Portcullis House in June and October 2010.
He said Michel claimed News International titles would turn against the coalition, and not support the government’s AV campaign, if business secretary Vince Cable referred the BSkyB bid to broadcast regulator Ofcom.
In May, Cable told the inquiry he heard from colleagues “veiled threats” had been made against the party if he made the wrong decision from News Corp’s perspective.
He added: “I think somebody used the phrase ‘done over’ in the News International press, and I took those things seriously, I was very concerned.”
The inquiry was shown a handwritten note made by Lamb days after the October 27 meeting, in which he referred to the meeting as “extraordinary”.
It read: “0900 meeting Fred Michel News International. An extraordinary encounter. FM is very charming. He tells me News Int papers will land on VC’s desk in next 2 weeks. They are certain there are no grounds for referral. They realise the political pressures. He wants things to run smoothly. They have been supportive of coalition. But if it goes the wrong way he is worried about the implications.
“It was brazen. VC refers case to Ofcom – they turn nasty. Then he talked about AV – how Sun might help the debate – use of good graphics to get across case. James M has met Nick – worth working on him to he could be receptive to case. Times will give it fair hearing.
“So refer case and implication was clear. News Int turn against coalition and AV.”
He added: “I left that meeting with a very clear understanding that they had tried to be helpful in the period since the election through their newspapers, but that if things went the wrong way in terms of the actions that Vince Cable took exercising his responsibility then he was concerned that things could change, and I took that to mean very clearly that the positive coverage that they had – he said they had given might change.”
Lamb said he discussed the conversation with Nick Clegg on November 2, 2010, and said in another note made at the time the deputy prime minister had been “horrified” that the party would lose News International support.
Lamb said he found Michel – News Corp’s director of public affairs for Europe – “charming” during the first meeting on June 10 but had no recollection of the matters discussed, admitting the BSkyB bid may have been raised. The meeting took place five days before News Corp officially announced the intention to acquire the remaining BSkyB shares.
Michel told the inquiry in May he was only aware the bid would be launched the day before the official announcement, but was aware it was the intention of News Corp to acquire the remaining shares.
He added: “I think my role was to represent, as best as I could, our arguments for why this bid was strong – had a strong case, and to make representations across all political parties as much as I could.”
Asked by Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel, why he had waited to come forward with the story, Lamb said he had decided to give evidence after Vince Cable’s appearance at the inquiry. He said he had only just found the handwritten note after texting his wife, asking her to look through his papers.
Rhodri Davies QC, representing News International, said Michel stood by his position he made no threats to any politicians over the bid. Lord Justice Leveson said the lobbyist could reply to the allegations in writing.
Earlier today, Nick Clegg’s special adviser Tim Colbourne denied offering strategic advice to News Corporation over the BSkyB bid.
Colbourne contradicted an email sent to James Murdoch by Michel on December 2, 2010. The lobbyist told colleagues Colbourne had insisted on the need for the company to meet with Vince Cable once the Ofcom report on the bid was published, and had said it was important to have the support of the Labour Party.
He told the inquiry: “I have to say I have no particular insight into the thoughts and workings of the Labour Party on this and most other matters. But in this case I suspect that a passing reference has been overinterpreted and exaggerated, and Mr Michel’s record doesn’t reflect the conversation which took place.”
The special adviser said an email from Michel in November 2010, asking for a meeting, had come “out of the blue” but was not surprised the lobbyist wanted to talk to him about the bid. He said he would not have agreed to the meeting if he knew the bid would be on the agenda, and initially the pair had talked about the Digital Economy Act.
Michel followed up the December meeting with an email five days later, telling Colbourne: “Don’t hesitate to let me know if there is anything I can do to help Nick in the coming weeks. We should keep in contact regularly going forward.”
Colbourne added: “For the record I don’t think it is the role of special advisers to insist that ministers should meet with people they are not inclined to meet.”
“I personally think the level of advice and guidance which is given to special advisers is minimum, that a lot could be done to improve it. I recall that when I was employed I was given a copy of the code of conduct together with my contract but there was no more detailed guidance.”