British ministers backed Murdoch takeover: inquiry

Thu May 31, 2012 2:31pm EDT
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By Kate Holton and Philip Baillie

LONDON (Reuters) - British cabinet ministers worked behind the scenes to support James Murdoch's bid to take over a pay-TV company, a public inquiry heard on Thursday, adding weight to opposition criticism of the government's ties to powerful media barons.

The Leveson inquiry into relations between politicians and the press has shone a spotlight on the government's handling of News Corp's bid for BSkyB and whether Rupert Murdoch's media empire was able to promote its interests by influencing ministers.

Charges of perjury laid against Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief from 2007 to 2011 and editor of the Murdoch-owned News of the World before that, have given added ammunition to critics of Cameron's judgment and ministers' links to media owners.

Text messages and emails put before the inquiry on Thursday showed how Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and finance minister George Osborne, close allies of Cameron, tried to reassure James Murdoch that they backed News Corp's $12 billion bid for the majority stake in BSkyB it did not already own.

"Congrats on Brussels, just Ofcom to go!" Hunt texted to Murdoch, referring to a decision by EU regulators in Brussels to approve the BSkyB takeover and to a decision yet to be taken by the British regulator, Ofcom.

Such messages add to a stream of correspondence that critics say shows how top politicians and media barons used each other to promote their own interests.

The Labour opposition has repeatedly called for Hunt to resign, accusing the ruling Conservatives of favoring News Corp to ensure sympathetic coverage in its British papers.

Cameron, however, reiterated his support for his culture minister after the hearing.   Continued...

A still image from broadcast footage shows News Corp Deputy Chief Operating Officer, James Murdoch, speaking at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media at the High Court in London April 24, 2012. REUTERS/POOL via Reuters TV