Rupert Murdoch allegedly asked John Major to change European policy during a private dinner, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
The former Conservative prime minister said he was asked by the proprietor to reconsider the government’s position on Europe, or his papers would not back the party in the 1997 general election. He told the inquiry he had not spoken about the dinner with Murdoch, Elisabeth Murdoch and his wife Norma, in 15 years but had chosen to reveal the conversation under oath.
Sir John Major – who said he was not an admirer of the proprietor’s activities – contradicted evidence given to the inquiry by Murdoch, who said in April he had “never asked a prime minister for anything”.
Major said: “As I recall, he used the word ‘we’ when referring to his newspapers. He didn’t make the usual nod towards editorial independence.
“It is not very often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says to a prime minister, ‘I would like you to change your policy, my organisation cannot support you’….it’s not often that point is directly put to a prime minister in that fashion, so it’s not likely to have been something I would have forgotten.”
Major admitted he had been too sensitive to media coverage during his time in office and said he had a more hostile relationship with the press than predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who was admired for turning the convictions and prejudices of proprietors “into political flesh”.
He described a number of personal intrusions by the media into his family, telling the inquiry a journalist had repeatedly followed his son on a motorbike, and someone claiming to be from a hospital had contacted his office in order to find out whether his son’s girlfriend was pregnant.
He said his wife had called then Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie after reporters accessed the family’s holiday home to take pictures. The editor allegedly hung up on her after saying “you have no right to privacy”.
Major said he had called MacKenzie in 1992 – following Black Wednesday – but did not recall the same conversation as the editor, who told the inquiry he had said “I’ve got a bucket of shit on my desk, prime minister, and I’m going to pour it all over you”.
Major told the inquiry a distinction should be drawn between the “good, the bad and the ugly” in the press and urged Lord Justice Leveson to protect quality journalism.
He added: “I think if what they put in their papers is grotesque, then I think there is a balance between the freedom of the press to print what they like and the liberty of the individual to be protected from things that are untrue, unfair or malicious.”