Cable Claims News Corp Made 'Veiled Threats'

Sophy Ridge, political correspondent
Cable Claims News Corp Made 'Veiled Threats'

Vince Cable has claimed News Corporation made "veiled threats" to his colleagues that the Lib Dems would be "done over" if he did not approve the bid to take over BSkyB.

In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, the Business Secretary said there was "a sense of being under siege from a well-organised operation" when he was handling the BSkyB bid.

The Cabinet minister said he heard about the alleged threats "indirectly and directly" from colleagues and believed they emerged "in conversation" with News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel, adding "but I can't be absolutely certain".

Rhodri Davies, News Corp's counsel, said: "Without knowing who is supposed to have been threatened and when, it's extremely difficult for Mr Michel or anyone else to respond to the allegation."

Mr Cable was removed from his quasi-judicial role overseeing the bid after being secretly recorded by the Daily Telegraph in December 2010 saying he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch.

The role was then handed to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt , who has come under fire himself for expressing support for News Corp and over his office's contact with Mr Michel.

In his witness statement , Mr Cable said the comments about Mr Murdoch were "making the point, no doubt rather hyperbolically, that l had no intention of being intimidated.

"Clearly, I should not have volunteered my unprompted opinion, even in a private, confidential conversation."

He said the remarks were an attempt to show that he could not be influenced or intimidated by News Corporation, but accepted that he had gone too far.

"I do understand that the remarks I made did create a perception of bias and therefore made it difficult for me to continue," the politician told the probe into media ethics.

"I fully understand that. I don't mean to say that I would have been biased. I would not have been. But, nonetheless, there was a perception issue and that had to be taken into account."

The Business Secretary also said that he believed the Murdochs have a "disproportionate influence" on politicians and that the leaders of political parties had become too close to them.

He said he rejected approaches by News Corporation to meet and discuss its attempts to take over BSkyB, saying that he considered a meeting with James Murdoch would have been "inappropriate".

And he denied that he had met with other parties who were interested in preventing the acquisition and said he had instructed everyone to put their case in writing.

The Business Secretary insisted that politicians could still think independently even if they had their own views and opinions on issues they were having to handle.

"With an independent mind doesn't mean with a blank mind. Most people in public life have views, opinions," he said.

He insisted his handling of the takeover bid had been conducted entirely fairly, saying: "All the decisions in the department were subject to advice from officials (and) departmental lawyers, because they were conscious that if a decision was made with bias or perceived bias then legal action could be taken, in this case through the Competition Appeals Tribunal - equivalent to a judicial review."

News Corp had wanted to buy the remaining 61% of BSkyB, which owns Sky News, that it does not already hold but abandoned the bid last summer after the phone hacking row escalated.

Mr Cable also insisted that his special adviser had "no responsibilities to speak for me" about the takeover.

This issue will be central during Mr Hunt's evidence on Thursday.

His special adviser Adam Smith was forced to resign after it emerged he had been in repeated contact with Mr Michel about the bid.

Mr Hunt has been left fighting for his job after revelations about his department's contact with News Corporation and his own views about the takeover.

The Culture Secretary, who had asked to give his evidence early to put his side of the story, will argue that his handling of the bid was entirely above board.

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