Leveson Inquiry: Lamb's News International 'warning'

Norman Lamb MP Image copyright bbc
Image caption North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb met News International's lobbyist Fred Michel in October 2010

He was on the witness stand for just 16 minutes, but North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry may turn out to be some of the most significant of the current session.

Mr Lamb told how he was warned by News International things could "turn nasty" for the Liberal Democrats if Business Secretary Vince Cable referred the company's bid for BSkyB to Ofcom.

"It was an extraordinary encounter," he told the inquiry. "The implication was clear; refer the bid and News International would turn against the coalition."

For 18 months Mr Lamb was political advisor to Nick Clegg, a job which involved liaising with the media.

He told the inquiry that on 27 October 2010 he met News International's lobbyist, Fred Michel, for a coffee in Portcullis House - the Westminster offices of a number of MPs.

Mr Michel had said he wanted to discuss a number of issues with Mr Lamb but it soon became clear his main concern was BSkyB.

Handwritten note

The inquiry was shown a handwritten note from Mr Lamb's diary written shortly after the meeting. He writes that Mr Michel "wants things to run smoothly. They have been supportive of the coalition but if it goes the wrong way he is worried about the implications".

"It was brazen; Vince Cable refers case to Ofcom, they turn nasty," the MP told the inquiry.

The conversation then moved onto the forthcoming campaign around the alternative vote. According to Mr Lamb's notes, Mr Michel suggested: "The Sun might help the debate - use of good graphics to get across case. The Times will give it a fair hearing," providing the bid did not go to Ofcom.

"I left the meeting with a clear understanding that they had tried to be helpful since the election through their newspapers, but if things turned the wrong way he was concerned that things could change.

"I took that to mean, very clearly, that the positive coverage he said they had given, might change."

Mr Lamb said he chose not to respond to what Mr Michel had told him but reported the meeting to Nick Clegg and Vince Cable.

Clegg 'horrified'

Mr Clegg was said to be "horrified that we will lose the only papers who have been positive" to the Liberal Democrats. But all three agreed "nothing of this sort should influence in any way how the bid was considered".

The Leveson Inquiry is, among other things, trying to establish if newspapers have ever tried to pressurise ministers into changing policy.

Two weeks ago another even more high profile politician from the east, Sir John Major, made similar comments.

The former prime minister claimed Rupert Murdoch had asked him to change Conservative policy on Europe; something he refused to do.

News International denies that such a request was ever made.

Mr Lamb was told by Robert Jay QC, for the inquiry, that Fred Michel denies any implied or explicit threats or that he linked political coverage of the Liberal Democrats to the BSkyB bid.

Mr Lamb replied: "My note speaks for itself."