The Government claims there is ‘no requirement’ to record the minutes of informal meetings between ministers and the media, reports Sam Bright
The Government didn’t record the minutes of several ministerial meetings with key right-wing media editors and executives – including Rupert Murdoch, Byline Times can reveal.
On 21 December last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held a meeting with several editors and executives at News UK, the parent company of the Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times, talkRADIO, and TalkTV.
The participants were Rupert Murdoch, owner of News UK and its US parent company NewsCorp; as well as News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks; The Times Editor Tony Gallagher; the then Sunday Times Editor Emma Tucker; the Sun Editor Victoria Newton; and the NewsCorp CEO Robert Thompson.
Byline Times submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, asking for a copy of the agenda and the minutes that accompanied this meeting. It is commonplace for the Government to record the minutes of external meetings such as this one, logged as it was in the Prime Minister’s official register. There is a precedent of government departments periodically releasing redacted copies of these minutes after receiving an FOI request.
However, Byline Times’ request was denied, on the grounds that there is “no requirement” for the Government to record the minutes of meetings between ministers and the media as they are “not structured or formal government meetings”.
Given the seniority of the participants, it seems tenuous to describe this meeting as ‘informal’ – while there would be great public interest in learning what was said during the exchange.
“The idea that any meeting with employees of Murdoch businesses would be ‘informal’ and without an agenda is incredible,” according to Tom Brake, former Liberal Democrat MP and Unlock Democracy director. “You don’t have to believe that Succession is an accurate representation of the way the Murdoch empire works to know that informal meetings can provide cover for a multitude of business-related discussions.
“Full minutes must be published so everyone knows what these top-level conversations were really about.”
The Government also failed to record the minutes of three other meetings with senior right-wing media figures. This included a meeting between Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the Sun’s Political Editor Harry Cole on 4 October – less than a month after she entered the role.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – the department responsible for press regulation – also failed to record the minutes of meetings held by the then DCMS Secretary Michelle Donelan with the Daily Mail and the Telegraph on 23 November and 19 December respectively.
Nathan Sparkes, chief executive of the Hacked Off campaign group, said “the lack of transparency over meetings like this allows press bosses to lobby the Government on policy affecting the national newspaper industry – and anything else – in near total secrecy”.
“This Government has a long and undignified history of warping legislation to satisfy the interests of national newspapers, while the titles to benefit serve up positive coverage of the administration and attacks on its political opponents,” he told Byline Times.
“If News UK were serious about public interest journalism, it would publish the minutes of these meetings and report on any government attempt to lobby for better coverage, openly and with all due scrutiny, in the pages of its newspapers.”
The Cabinet Office and News UK did not respond to requests for comment.
Ringleader or Kingpin?
It isn’t possible to say exactly how much power the right-wing media – and in particular the Murdoch empire – wields over Conservative politicians. It is clear that the press intimately shapes the content of the party’s campaigns – from asylum to welfare – but the extent of Murdoch’s role as a kingpin is a matter of speculation.
However, we do know that Murdoch, his senior employees and other right-wing media executives have been in the room during pivotal recent periods of government.
The final external meeting that Boris Johnson held before he resigned as Prime Minister was with Rebekah Brooks and Robert Thompson. And it wasn’t long before Thompson was back in Downing Street as the guest of Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, who hosted the NewsCorp CEO for her first external meeting.
On 16 October, three weeks after her disastrous mini-budget, The Sunday Times’ leader column declared that “Truss is barely still in office and certainly not in power… Senior Tories must now act in the national interest and remove her from Downing Street as quickly as possible”.
The newspaper’s preferred candidate was clear: “The one person who could limit the damage to the UK’s credibility as Truss’ successor is Rishi Sunak… He has the ability to bring a degree of coherence to the fractured Conservative benches, and he has the understanding of the markets and the Treasury necessary to reassure international investors,” the article said.
Four days later, on 20 October, Truss resigned and was replaced by Sunak.
Sunak himself is no stranger to the Murdoch machine, having first schmoozed Brooks in April 2020 – just two months after becoming Chancellor.
And News UK executives remained in close contact with senior ministers throughout the early stages of the pandemic. Murdoch and Brooks held seven private meetings with five senior ministers over a seven-week period in August and September 2020, including two meetings with Boris Johnson.
During this period, as revealed by Byline Times, the Government provided tens of millions of pounds to the major newspaper groups – including the Mail group, the Murdoch group, the Telegraph group and the Mirror group – in the form of COVID subsidies.
Dominic Cummings, who was at the time Boris Johnson’s chief aide, later claimed that the then Prime Minister received “direct repeated calls” from press proprietors and editors, who told him that working from home norms were “killing” the newspaper industry. They urged him, Cummings claimed, to “get commuters back”.
Asked if he came across any examples of private lobbying leading to lockdown rule changes during the pandemic, Cummings said “newspapers negotiated direct bungs [payments] to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]”.
There were “no officials on [the calls]”, he added, and Johnson “told officials to send the [money] dressed up as COVID relief”.
Budgeted at £35 million for the first three months, the subsidy scheme was still operating two years later. If it had continued at its initial rate for 24 months, the scheme’s total outlay would have been well in excess of £200 million.
The major right-wing newspapers were not only the beneficiaries of government spending during this period, but also potentially its policies.
On 22 September 2020, a day after meeting with seven right-wing press editors and executives, Johnson swerved calls from his scientific advisors to impose a nationwide lockdown – opting instead for marginal alterations of the rules, banning more than six people from meeting and announcing a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants.
No minutes have ever been declared from these meetings, either.
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