List exposes Murdochs' close links to top Tories

By Oliver Wright

The extraordinary access granted by British Cabinet ministers to Rupert Murdoch and his children has been revealed for the first time.

More than two dozen private meetings were held between the family and senior members of the Government in the 15 months since David Cameron entered Downing St.

In total, Cabinet ministers have met Murdoch executives more than 60 times.

On three occasions James Murdoch was given confidential defence briefings on Afghanistan and Britain's strategic defence review by the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, including on one occasion with his father.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has had 16 meetings since May 2010 with News International editors and executives, including two with the Murdochs within just a month of taking office.

He also invited Elisabeth Murdoch as a guest to his 40th birthday party last month.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt dined with Rupert Murdoch within days of the Government coming to power, and, after being given quasi-judicial oversight for the Murdochs' £8 billion ($15 billion) attempted takeover of BSkyB, had two meetings with James Murdoch in which they discussed the takeover.

Hunt said yesterday these were legitimate as part of the bid process.

The minister who sees Rupert Murdoch most frequently is Education Secretary, Michael Gove, a former News International employee. Gove has seen the mogul for breakfast, lunch or dinner on six occasions since May and has had 12 meetings with Murdoch executives since becoming a minister.

The list, released by government departments yesterday, reinforces the impression of an unhealthily close relationship between the top echelons of News International and senior members of the Coalition Cabinet, which first became apparent when Cameron released his list of contacts with news organisations a week ago. He revealed then he had met News International executives on 26 occasions since entering No10.

Senior executives and editors from News International have held private meetings with Cabinet ministers more than 60 times since last May.

However, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who was stripped of responsibility for ruling on whether the BSkyB bid should go ahead after boasting in December that he had "declared war on Rupert Murdoch", did not have as much contact as some of his colleagues did with News Corp figures. Cable met the editor of the Times, James Harding, in December, although it is unclear whether this was before or after he was stripped of his responsibilities for the BSkyB bid. He also attended a Sunday Times lunch last April.

It emerged that the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, held a meeting shortly after the election with the former News of the World editor and No 10's communications director, Andy Coulson, the former head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, and Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of the News of the World and then adviser to the Met.

Downing St described the dinner as a "get-to-know you meeting" and said it had emerged through an investigation of records of contacts with Wallis, who was recently arrested over allegations of phone hacking.

A spokesman for Gove insisted his meetings with the Murdochs were personal. "Michael worked for News International and his wife works for News International," he said.

"He has known Rupert Murdoch for over a decade. He did not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs and isn't at all embarrassed about his meetings, most of which have been about education, which is his job."

A spokesman for Fox said the defence briefings given to the Murdochs covered a range of issues and were given because of the "interest in defence matters" shown by News International papers.

The Conservative Party's co-chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi said the release of the information showed that the Government was being open about its dealings with the Murdochs. "This Government is delivering unprecedented transparency," she said. "Ed Miliband now needs to come clean. Where is his list of shadow Cabinet media meetings? Ed Miliband should get his own house in order."

Ivan Lewis MP, Labour's shadow culture, media and sport secretary, said: "We now need urgent clarification about whether David Cameron or his ministers sought to influence the BSkyB decision at any stage in the decision-making process."

- Independent

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