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

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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Tony Dawson 27th May '12 - 2:12pm

    Now THERE’s a silly story.

    How shall we give it legs?

    I know, we will dissect it to bits from a rather obviously biased perspective in a piece on a website which many people misguidedly believe is an official Lib Dem site. 🙁

    And you haven’t addressed the really important stuff such as whether Nick and Miriam took the Take That Wembley box invite from Fred Michel and the frequency of rose garden coffee dates between Michel and Lena Pietsch. 😉

  • Geoffrey Payne 27th May '12 - 2:25pm

    A good article Stephen. It is also worth reminding ourselves that at the height of Cleggmania during the 2010 general election it was the Murdoch press that led the charge in slagging off Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. I would say there is a universal loathing of the Murdoch press in the Liberal Democrats and the idea that we can do anything to influence the Sun that would vaguely support the Lib Dem case is laughable.

  • There’s no doubt that the Lib Dems in general, and Vince Cable in particular, are opposed to Murdoch. However, there is evidence from Fred Michel’s emails that Clegg, or at least his advisor, was interested in making Cable a little bit more pro-Murdoch so he could have support for yet another policy in breach of a manifesto promise, this time copyright.

    It’s not quite a smoking gun, but it demands an explanation from Clegg.

  • Yes, a particularly lame attempt by The Observer to spread the mud around a bit.

  • David Thorpe 27th May '12 - 6:00pm

    so we are implicated, because someone who didnt work for newscorp at the time of the events, played tennis with nick, who wasnt leader, and wasnt ing overnment.
    The email to julia, shows the man trying to gain infleunce, not him being able to excecise it.

    its piffle from the so called progressive press

  • Foregone Conclusion 27th May '12 - 6:42pm

    Find a picture of Clegg in the offices of a phone-tapping tabloid, holding up a picture of their newspaper while gurning merrily, then we’ll talk.

    (For those of you unaware of what I’m talking about, see here:

  • tony dawson 27th May '12 - 8:29pm

    It seems that Nick has simply carried on a tradition from numerous predeccessors .

    Employ people who are not very well connected to the Lib Dems. Give them time on their hands. And they will waste it with pushy self-important representatives of(insert multinationals, murderous regimes , etcas you see fit)

  • Would a loyalist apologist care to explain why, when Simon Hughes called for an inquiry into Hunt’s conduct, Nick Clegg supported David Cameron, and declared that it would be unnecessary? (They argued that Leveson would eventually get round to doing the job – though Leveson quickly responded that a formal inquiry into Ministerial conduct was not part of his job.)

    Yes, Lib Dems in general have been opposed to Murdoch. But Clegg is a different case.

  • Dave A
    Lets find out more about Labours relationship with Murdock before there is any inquiry.

  • Oops I misspelled Rupert’s name. that should be Morlock.

  • I am reading Tom Watson’s Dial M for Murdoch right now. I’d encourage others to do the same. It is shocking, depressing… insert whatever other negative words you can think of. I mean, I was sceptical of News International before reading; now I am beginning to believe that Vince’s “war on Murdoch” wasn’t so much a mistake but a fair-minded policy position.

  • @David Allen: because Nick is a minister and is therefore bound by collective responsibility. Simon H isn’t and therefore isn’t. Pretty basic politics, mate.

  • “because Nick is a minister and is therefore bound by collective responsibility.”

    Obviously that would be the case only if there was a cabinet decision that Hunt shouldn’t be investigated. Was there?

  • In reply to Tony Dawson your ‘unanswered’ questions have been answered. We know the tickets weren’t accepted as has already been reported and can be worked out from the fact they are not in any declarations. And the number of Pietsch/Michel meetings is in the Observer piece.

  • NIck Russell 28th May '12 - 11:12am

    @David Thorpe
    My initial reaction was, if that is the worst evidence they can produce for a front page headline, then we’re in good shape. It begs questions about The Observer’s editorial bias; does it justify referral to the Reader’s Editor? I think a lot of this stuff is Labour’s spin doctors feeding black propaganda about Clegg/LibDems. But make a note of Toby Helm and Daniel Boffey; clearly they are the next Woodward and Bernstein.

  • Cheltenham Robin 28th May '12 - 11:28am

    I’ve watched a couple of games on SKY Sports 1 and yet I am not mentioned in the article.

    Looks like I’ve got away with that one.

  • Colin Taylor 28th May '12 - 11:51am

    I could not get an Indy yesterday and opted for the Observer ( which I used to take as a Suday read for years) After trying to make sense of this article for some time it dawned on me why I had ceased reading the Observer.Very sad , it used to be a good campaigning paper

  • @ Stuart: Collective responsibility requires a Cabinet Minister to give public support to decisions agreed in Cabinet. It doesn’t require the Lib Dem leader to take the initiative and to volunteer his support for a Tory Minister who is trying to avoid an inquiry into his compliance with the Ministerial Code of conduct.

  • David Allen 28th May '12 - 2:22pm

    It’s blatantly obvious that New Labour’s links with Murdoch were far deeper than Clegg’s, and the Observer article will not convince anyone otherwise. Perhaps Labour hacks did dish the dirt to the Observer in the hope it would distract from Blair’s session with Leveson. If they did, then that was a vain hope.

    However, given some publishable information, the Observer cannot really be faulted for publishing it. If some of their language was a little over-written, that’s journalism for you. However, facts are facts.

    Just to take one such fact, we now know that a Murdoch lobbyist was a guest at a fundraising event held for Nick’s leadership campaign. Who decided to let him within a million miles of the door? Would he have been equally welcome at a fundraiser organised by Vince Cable, for example? Methinks not! So, this story does tell us something about Nick’s attitude to Murdoch, doesn’t it?

  • As a former media person I was stunned at the thinness of the evidence presented in the article. Had I been editor I would have spiked this story in an instant since they have not “stood up” their central allegation that the Lib Dems were as close to Murdoch as the rest. If anything it demonstrates just the opposite – how stunningly absent or weak the contacts were between the Lib Dems and Murdoch.

    This is very bad practice for the Observer and we have to wonder why on earth they are so desperate to try to smear us with this kind of weak, non-story. Presumably to ingratiate themselves with Labour.

  • Our problem is that the less Clegg says about this under the guise of collective government responsibility, the more he looks complicit in it, along with the rest, which is clearly blatantly not true. If we were in opposition, we’d be making hay right now.

    Clegg needs to speak up a bit more, or get Farron or somebody to do so for him, to make it clear that the Lib Dems ARE squeaky clean on this one. For once, we should be getting credit, but dammit, we aren’t gutsy enough to stand up and claim it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th May '12 - 10:11am

    The headline of the article suggested that the Liberal Democrats as a party received funding from Murdoch and/or his gang. The substance of the article however was that it was Nick Clegg’s leadership campaign which received this funding. That is a somewhat different matter. Subsiding an internal faction for internal campaigning within a party is not the same as subsiding the party. Any shame involved does not fall on Liberal Democrats as a whole, and on Liberal Democrat party members in general. The Observer was very wrong to run an article whose headline suggested it does – it is not enough to state that the article clarifies the issue. because it is often the case that only the headline gets read and remembered.

  • Tell me the one about the slumber party again? And the horse? And the flight to Australia? The disgraced editor hired as communications chief. The godfather role? The supportive texts. The backchannel information on a 6Bn deal?

  • coldcomfort 29th May '12 - 3:22pm

    I can add nothing to Peter Chivall’s magnificent piece. I suppose we should be pleased that the LabCon party are sufficiently rattled about the LibDems independence from the unelected Emperor of the World that they are prepared to devote effort to finding a ‘smear’ – however threadbare.

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