Former culture secretary sought assurances from then prime minister that there had been no backdoor deal with Rupert Murdoch on cross-media ownership rules
Tessa Jowell, the former culture secretary, has told the Leveson inquiry that she sought assurances from then prime minister Tony Blair that there had been no backdoor deal with Rupert Murdoch when she was given the job in 2001.
The former Labour cabinet minister had the task of reviewing cross-media ownership law as part of the Communications Act that was due to go before parliament at that time – and wanted to be assured she had a free hand in rewriting the rules.
Giving evidence before the judicial inquiry into press standards on Monday morning, Jowell said she saw Blair "within a couple of days of my appointment".
She asked the prime minister about whether his relationship with the media mogul would colour her thinking.
"I asked him whether or not any deal had been done with Rupert Murdoch on … the cross-media ownership rules. He gave me an absolute assurance which I completely accepted that there had been no prior agreement," she said.
Given that, Jowell said that she told Blair that it was best "if you don't see the parties", by which she meant any interested media owners, and that it was her job to "take this and come back to you with proposals". She told Lord Justice Leveson that Blair was content with this approach.
Jowell steered through the Communications Act, which eventually saw a partial relaxation of cross media ownership rules – allowing US groups such as Disney and Murdoch's News Corporation to buy British free to air broadcasters. That could have allowed News Corp to buy Channel 5.
The former culture secretary also told the inquiry that Blair asked her to see if cross-media ownership rules could be relaxed to the point where News Corp could have bought ITV or Channel 5.
Jowell had presented proposals that would have prevented News Corp, or any UK newspaper owner with a market share of more than 20%, from taking over ITV or Channel 5.
However, at a private meeting in March 2002, Blair asked for "further discussion of the merits and effects of the different approaches we could take to the rule preventing anyone owning 20% of both the national newspaper market and a Channel 3 [ITV] or Channel 5 service", according to a note prepared by officials at Jowell's Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Jowell told the inquiry that said she had no detailed recollection of the conversation at the meeting. But she acknowledged that when it came to cross media ownership rules Blair's "instinct in relation to this were, I think, more deregulatory than mine".
Shortly after, a second meeting between Jowell and Blair concluded that it was appropriate to allow News Corp to buy Channel 5 – but not ITV. An official note from April 2002 confirms this final, agreed position.
Jowell said the change in thinking was an example of the normal policy development process and that the proposed change in rules as regarding Channel 5 was not a big development.
The Channel 5 proposal went forward and became part of the Communications Act which was passed by Parliament, while the ITV restriction remains today.
More to follow