Leveson Inquiry: Row over Salmond BSkyB call 'offer'

Email evidence to Leveson inquiry
Image caption The row follows email evidence submitted to the Leveson Inquiry as part of James Murdoch's appearance

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has strongly denied he lobbied the UK government over News Corp's plan to take control of BSkyB.

The denial came following evidence given by News Corp chief James Murdoch to the Leveson Inquiry.

It heard Mr Murdoch was told Mr Salmond's adviser had agreed to call Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt "whenever we need him to".

The opposition urged Mr Salmond to make an emergency statement to parliament.

Image caption James Murdoch was speaking to the Leveson inquiry

The Leveson Inquiry into media standards heard evidence relating to emails from February last year.

The News Corp-owned Scottish Sun decided to back the Scottish National Party, led by Mr Salmond, shortly before the last Scottish election, but a spokesman for the first minister said it was "total nonsense" to suggest there was a "quid pro quo" offered by the Scottish government over the BSkyB bid.

Mr Salmond, the spokesman added, did discuss News Corp's operations in Scotland with James Murdoch, which provides jobs for 6,000 people, on economic grounds.

Mr Murdoch was being questioned over links between News Corp and Mr Hunt, during the time when the media company was seeking approval for the BSkyB deal.

Mr Hunt, a Tory MP, was given the quasi-legal job of deciding BSkyB's fate in December 2010.

Emails were submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by James Murdoch's father Rupert, who owns News Corp.

They come from the computer of Frederic Michel, an expert in managing reputation, who was News Corp's head of public affairs.

Mr Michel told James Murdoch on 11 February 2011 that Alex Salmond's adviser had agreed to call Mr Hunt about the BSkyB deal.

Mr Murdoch denied this was connected to more favourable coverage for Mr Salmond in newspapers such as the Scottish Sun.

Mr Murdoch responded by telling the Leveson Inquiry that Mr Salmond had offered to be supportive as a "Scottish politician and leader", and said Mr Hunt's advisers had told News Corp to find allies for the proposed takeover.

"People who can advocate, who are not just us talking our book and Mr Salmond had already said that he thought that this might be a good transaction for Scotland," Mr Murdoch said.

The BSkyB takeover was dropped after the phone hacking scandal at News Corp newspaper the News of the World resulted in it being closed down by the company in July last year.

Responding to questioning at the Leveson Inquiry, Mr Murdoch said Mr Salmond "always talked about the way he was covered in the newspapers".

Mr Murdoch replied to questions about "favourable" coverage of Mr Salmond and the SNP in the Scottish Sun by saying: "If the insinuation is there was any quid pro quo with editorial coverage versus a commercial agenda I can tell you categorically that it is false.

"There is no connection. Politicians seek a favour of the press at all times."

He added: "This is always something that is on their agenda."

Another email submitted to Leveson, from 2 March 2011, read: "Alex Salmond called. He had a very good dinner with the editor of the Sun in Scotland yesterday.

Image caption Opposition parties urged Alex Salmond to come clean over the details of the offer

"The Sun is now keen to back the SNP at the election. The editor will make his pitch to the editorial team tomorrow. Alex wanted to see whether he could help smooth the way for the process."

Mr Murdoch replied that it was natural for Mr Salmond to "convince people he was right", and added Mr Salmond was very interested in getting support from the Sun.

He said there was nothing surprising about the Sun supporting the SNP "given the political situation in Scotland".

Opposition parties have called for all communication between Mr Salmond and Mr Murdoch to be made public.

'Outrageous exchange'

Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont said: "Now we know how Alex Salmond operates.

"The Leveson Inquiry has evidence that he and his adviser told senior News International executives that they would intervene with the Tory government at Westminster to allow Rupert Murdoch and his son to get control of BSkyB.

"The interests of viewers and the television industry didn't come in to it.

"It seems all that mattered to Salmond was that he would support Murdoch in return for Murdoch's papers supporting Salmond - this stinks."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: "It is difficult to understand why the first minister has allowed himself to be sullied to such an extent.

"When the troubled media mogul said jump, it is clear that Alex Salmond was quick to say 'how high?'

"We need an immediate investigation into the circumstances which led to such an outrageous exchange taking place."

Conservative MSP David McLetchie said: "What has emerged today is that Alex Salmond was happy to hawk himself around as a lobbyist on behalf of the Murdoch empire in return for political favours.

"It is conduct unbecoming of a first minister, which has become all too familiar."

Salmond evidence

A spokesman for Mr Salmond said: "These references, in a handful out of hundreds of emails, represent internal chatter from within News International.

"It is total nonsense to suggest there was ever any quid pro quo offered by the Scottish government over the BSkyB bid, and nor could there possibly have been, because the Scottish government had absolutely no determination over BSkyB's ownership.

"Indeed, James Murdoch categorically rejected such claims in his evidence to the inquiry, and the proof of that lies in the fact that the first minister has never spoken to or corresponded with Jeremy Hunt on this issue."

The spokesman added that Mr Salmond was invited "some time ago" to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and was looking forward to do so.

"The first minister has certainly discussed News Corp's operations in Scotland with James Murdoch, and it would be extraordinary if they had not done so given the fact the company employs many thousands of people here," the spokesman added.

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