As a decision was awaited on whether the Bancroft family, which holds the majority of voting rights in the company that publishes the Wall Street Journal, would approve a sale of the company to Rupert Murdoch, the London Independent today produced new documents revealing Murdoch's behind-the-scenes political power.
The newspaper said that after first rejecting its request under the Freedom of Information Act for information about former Prime Minister Tony Blair's contacts with Murdoch, the Cabinet Office "in a surprise change of heart" disclosed Wednesday that Blair had had three conversations with Murdoch in the nine days prior to the start of the Iraq war in 2003. The war was strongly supported by Murdoch's newspapers in Britain, one of which, the Sun, at the time of the Blair-Murdoch phone conversations, began blasting France for failing to do so as well. Referring to French President Jacques Chirac, who opposed the war, the Sun said at the time: "This grandstanding egomaniac has inflicted irreparable damage on some of the most important yet fragile structures of international order."
How Murdoch had a hotline to the PM in the run-up to Iraq war
By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
Published: 19 July 2007
Details of the former prime minister's contacts with Mr Murdoch have been released under the Freedom of Information Act. After trying to block disclosure for four years, the Government backed down in a surprise change of heart the day after Mr Blair resigned last month.
Requests for information under the Act were submitted by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury and The Independent journalist James Macintyre. An appeal was pending and evidence was about to be served in a case before an Information Tribunal.
Yesterday the Cabinet Office said there were six telephone discussions between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch in 20 months, all at crucial moments of his premiership. The subject of their calls was not revealed.
In 2003, Mr Blair phoned the owner of The Times and The Sun on 11 and 13 March, and on 19 March, the day before Britain and the United States invaded Iraq. The war was strongly supported by Murdoch-owned newspapers around the world. The day after two of the calls, The Sun launched vitriolic attacks on the French President Jacques Chirac. The Government quoted him as saying he would "never" support military action against Saddam Hussein, a claim hotly disputed by France.
Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch spoke again on 29 January 2004, the day after publication of the Hutton report into the death of Dr David Kelly. Their next conversation was on 25 April 2004, just after Mr Blair bowed to pressure led by The Sun for him to promise a referendum on the proposed EU constitution. They also spoke on 3 October that year, after Mr Blair said he would not fight a fourth general election.
The Cabinet Office also said Mr Blair had three meetings with Richard Desmond, the proprietor of Express Newspapers, between January 2003 and February 2004. The Government had said releasing the information would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs, and disclosure of the timing of exchanges with "stakeholders" could reveal the content of the discussion.
Lord Avebury said: "This is a welcome victory for the cause of freedom of information. It shouldn't have taken so much time and effort to extract information that was clearly of great public interest. Rupert Murdoch has exerted his influence behind the scenes on policies on which he is known to have strong views, including the regulation of broadcasting and the Iraq war."
In Alastair Campbell's diaries, published last week, the former spin doctor described a Downing Street dinner for Mr Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, in 2002. "Murdoch pointed out that his were the only papers that gave us support when the going got tough. 'I've noticed,' said TB," Mr Campbell wrote. Lance Price, Mr Campbell's deputy, called Mr Murdoch "the 24th member of the [Blair] Cabinet". He added: "His presence was always felt. No big decision could ever be made inside No10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch. On all the really big decisions, anybody else could safely be ignored."
Last year, Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, ruled that official contacts between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch should be disclosed, but other contacts were not if no minute or note was taken.
The calls... and the editorial response
Phone call: 11 March 2003
The Sun says: 12 March 2003
"Like a cheap tart who puts price before principle, money before honour, Jacques Chirac struts the streets of shame. The French President's vow to veto the second resolution [on Iraq] at the United Nations - whatever it says - puts him right in the gutter."
Phone call: 13 March 2003
The Sun says: 14 March 2003
"Charlatan Jacques Chirac is basking in cheap applause for his 'Save Saddam' campaign - but his treachery will cost his people dear. This grandstanding egomaniac has inflicted irreparable damage on some of the most important yet fragile structures of international order."
Phone call: 19 March 2003
The Sun says: 20 March 2003
"Time has run out for Saddam Hussein. His day of reckoning is at hand. The war on Iraq has begun... The courage and resilience of Tony Blair and George Bush will now be put to the ultimate test."