Political sketch: Filleting Murdoch fils

At Leveson, Robert Jay QC questions James Rupert Jacob.

 

It was always going to be difficult to take seriously someone who sound like Montgomery Burns but an exception has to be made for James Murdoch.

He may have gone from Murdoch minor to Murdoch minus in the last eight months but he turned up at the Leveson inquiry still able to cause trouble just by saying yes or no. With his dad due as the main course tomorrow, James was always going to be a thin sort of hors d’oeuvre and not much for the audience to snack on.

Indeed, after his mafia-mauling at the hands of Labour MP Tom Watson he must have thought he’d faced the worst that Britain had to offer —but that was before he met the man with the yellow-framed specs.

Step forward Robert Jay QC, lead counsel and bearded tormentor-in-chief to the good, bad and sometimes irrelevant who have meandered their way through mostly Murdoch-matters since Leveson began his inquiry into media standards.

It was standing room only at the Royal Courts of Justice as Murdoch fils entered the nearest thing to a dock the inquiry has, and proceeded to kick off by admitting his full-name was James Rupert Jacob Murdoch.

That was probably the only willing admission made over the next five hours as Mr Jay proceeded to slice and dice his way through the email trail which marked Mr Murdoch’s journey from hero to zero during his four years at the helm of the British end of the global empire.

Earlier, the Press Association had confirmed it was a real story by issuing a flash that James had entered the gates of the Royal Courts "in a black Range Rover".

Even his wife had turned up, raising reporters' hopes of a repeat of the "left-hook" incident in the Commons when Rupert’s missus laid out a pie-waving protestor who sought his 15 seconds of fame. But there were no obvious marks to be seen from the forensic filleting of her husband by the quietly-speaking silk, although the thin Mr Murdoch did appear to be thinner still once the examination was over.

What we did discover was the length and breadth of the political contacts of the man who ran four British newspapers and BskyB on behalf of his dad.

And even before Mr Jay let him off the hook the Prime Minister had been forced into pledging “total confidence” in his Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt in the fashion so beloved on football chairmen talking about their errant managers.

Well before we got to that, we discovered that James still knew nothing about phone hacking by journalists on the News of the World. Indeed, he told the inquiry he did not read the paper on a regular basis — nor the Sun — thereby giving him at least something to share with most of the people in the room.

But we did find out that James pledged the Sun’s support to David Cameron and the Tory Party over “drinks at The George” in September 2009, and agreed to let the news out for maximum effect the day after Gordon Brown was due to address the Labour Party conference.

And we learned he discussed the Scottish Sun’s support for Alex Salmond with a very supportive SNP leader at several social events north of the border before the general election.

We also learned that James would be shocked if anyone thought that pledging editorial support required a quid pro quo from News International. Lots of people in the room certainly looked shocked at something.

So James must have been even less shocked as Jay led him though a series of emails — note to company chiefs: never write it down — detailing the contacts between him, his office and that of Jeremy Hunt during the "quasi-judicial" consideration of the now-aborted bid by Murdoch et al. to buy up full control of BSkyB.

James headed for the hills of high principle as he was reminded of Business Secretary Vince Cable’s unfortunate boast that he was out “to get Murdoch” in the Telegraph sting that got him dropped from the decision.

But he was much less comfortable as Jay read from a series of messages implying close contact between him and his office and the Culture Secretary, then in charge of adjudicating on the bid. Jay said James was “somewhat blind” to the apparent horse trading between the Sun’s support for the Tory Party and its subsequent backing for the BSkyB takeover. James had his shocked look on again.

Tomorrow the inquiry finally turns its attention to the organ grinder and has set a day and a half aside to grill the octagenarian who has had his hand up the backs of British politicians for much of the last 40 years.  

Rupert Murdoch’s many and varied enemies will celebrate this rare chance to get him in court. 

But they should remember Rupert does not shock quite so easily.

Murdochs Major and Minor. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.