UK

Leveson Inquiry: John Major reveals Murdoch's EU demand

  • 12 June 2012
  • From the section UK

Rupert Murdoch warned John Major to switch policy on Europe or his papers would not support him, the ex-prime minister has told the Leveson Inquiry.

Sir John recalled the exchange from a private meeting in 1997, which he said he had not spoken about before.

Later that year, his Conservative party lost power to Labour, with the Sun backing his rival Tony Blair.

Sir John said he was subjected to some "hurtful" press coverage while he was PM, but was "too sensitive" at times.

The third module of the inquiry is focusing on the relationship between the press and politicians.

Labour Leader Ed Miliband and his deputy Harriet Harman also gave evidence.

Sir John was prime minister from 1990 until the 1997 general election. That defeat - which saw his party lose power after 18 years - came after Mr Murdoch's newspaper titles famously switched their support away from the Conservatives to Labour.

He recalled the dinner with Mr Murdoch on 2 February 1997, during which he said the media mogul asked him to change his policy on Europe, warning that his newspapers would not support him if he failed to do so.

When he came to power, the then prime minister said he wanted Britain to remain "at the very heart of Europe".

"Mr Murdoch said he really didn't like our European policies," Sir John told inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson. "This was no surprise to me."

Sir John added: "He wished me to change our European policies. If we couldn't change our European policies his papers could not and would not support the Conservative government."

But the former PM, who told the inquiry he met Mr Murdoch three times in seven years, said: "There was no question of me changing our policies."

He said the discussion was one he was unlikely to forget. "It is not often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says to a prime minister 'I would like you to change your policy or my organisation cannot support you'," Sir John added.

In April, Mr Murdoch told the Leveson Inquiry: "I have never asked a prime minister for anything."

At the time, he was being questioned as to whether he had asked for or been offered any favours when he met the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981.

He denied trying to influence her by demonstrating his political allegiance ahead of his bid for Times newspapers.

He added: "If any politician wanted my opinions on major matters, they only had to read the editorials in the Sun."

'A bit ratty'

Sir John said he was not surprised that the Sun switched its support to Labour in 1997.

He said he used to joke that "I went swimming in the Thames, left my clothes on the bank and when I came back Mr Blair was wearing them".

Following Sir John's evidence, a News International spokesman said: "News International titles did not act in unison in the 1997 election. The Sunday Times supported John Major, the Times was neutral, and the Sun and the News of the World supported Labour."

Earlier, the former prime minister told the inquiry: "I was much too sensitive from time to time about what the press wrote. God knows in retrospect why I was, but I was.

"I think you can explain that in human terms. If you pick up the papers each day and read a caricature of what you believe you are doing and what you believe you are then I suppose it's a basic human emotion to get a bit ratty about it."

He said at the time he was prime minister the press was a "source of wonder".

"I learned what I thought that I didn't think, what I said that I hadn't said and what I was about to do that I wasn't about to do," he said.

He said it "was a bit wearing" and he often over-reacted to coverage in the newspapers, but it was a "human over-reaction".

"Did I read them too much? Yes I did. Was it hurtful? Yes it was. Did I think it was malicious? I think that's for others to make a judgement," he said.

Sir John also accused former prime minister Gordon Brown's special advisers of spreading untrue stories about him "for party political advantage". He said he wrote to the cabinet secretary about this at the time.

Black Wednesday

He was asked about a phone call he made to the then Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie in 1992 on "Black Wednesday", when the UK exited the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

He said he did not recollect the same conversation that was recounted by Mr MacKenzie, who previously told the inquiry he had warned the then premier that his newspaper's coverage would not be positive.

"There are more myths about Black Wednesday than the Greeks ever created," said Sir John. He described the conversation as a "bad mistake" and said it was "not a particularly productive phone call".

Sir John was also asked about his "back to basics" policy, which some sections of the press criticised at the time.

"Back to basics wasn't a puritanical moral crusade at any time," he said.

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