Desperately thin stuff – Observer fails to reveal Lib Dem ties with Murdoch

by Stephen Tall on May 27, 2012

Liberal Democrats’ ties with Murdoch aides revealed to Leveson inquiry shouts The Observer headline today followed by a breathlessly hyped claim:

Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats were sucked deeper into the controversy over News Corp’s planned takeover of BSkyB on Saturday as evidence submitted to the Leveson inquiry revealed close party ties with Murdoch executives.

I then read the story to try and find what amazing revelations backed-up the paper’s confidence. Then I read it again. And again. I’m still none the wiser how “Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats” have been “sucked deeper into the controversy”.

The Observer’s attempt to implicate the Lib Dems seem to be based on a few sparse facts:

  • Fred Michel, News International’s chief lobbyist, attended a fundraising party in 2007 during Nick’s leadership campaign. The fact that this was a ball suggests it wasn’t the most intimate occasions, certainly not a kitchen supper at which policy could be influenced;
  • Three years later, the paper says Mr Michel sought a meeting with Danny Alexander through his special advisor, former Lib Dem MP Julia Goldsworthy — “Dear Julia, I hope you’re well. We met at a fundraising dinner for the Lib Dem leadership election with Ian Wright.” Is it just me, or does the formality of this note contrast sharply with Jeremy Hunt’s excruciating “daddy” text messages?
  • Finally, there was active communication towards the end of 2010, after the row over News Corp’s takeover of BSkyB hit the headlines following Vince Cable’s entrapment by the Telegraph when the business secretary told undercover reporters posing as constituents he had ‘declared war on Murdoch’. The paper doesn’t offer any direct quotes of what was said by Lib Dem advisers, which leads me to infer there’s nothing incriminating, with advisers affirming Mr Michel that due process would be upheld at a time when the party was embarrassed by Vince’s loose-lipped honesty.

In short, there appears to be nothing in the story beyond the fact, already established, that Fred Michel was hyperactive on his employers’ behalf attempting to influence political decisions in their commercial interest. If there are ill-advised text messages or emails between any Lib Dems and Mr Michel the Observer has failed to find them.

What we do know is that the one Lib Dem who ever had influence over the BSkyB takeover decision, Vince Cable, was scrupulous in keeping his distance from News Corporation — as we were reminded by this delicious email from one of his special advisers, Giles Wilkes, to Mr Michel who’d asked “when would be good for you?” for a meeting.

“Let us assume it is when a Google of Vince Cable, News International and Sky does not turn anything up. I am sure we are both interested in staying within the proper bounds of conduct.”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.