Monday, July 11, 2011

Murdoch and Blair

I can't help recalling that it took 15 months and a great deal of work, with the help of Tamsin Allen of Bindman & Partners, to extract details of contacts between Rupert Murdoch and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Labour Party, including David Miliband did their best to prevent the disclosure of this information when they were pally with the Dirty Digger and the public may like to bear this in mind when brother Ed waxes indignant about the infestation at Wapping:

17 July, 2007


The information was sought under Freedom of Information law introduced by the Government. In October 2003 Lord Avebury, the Liberal Peer, asked in a Parliamentary question for the dates of meetings between Tony Blair and Rupert
Murdoch. He wrote on April 8, 2004 to the Leader of the House, the Rt Hon Baroness Amos, asking under what provision of the Code of Practice on access to Government Information she had declined to give the information, and on June 24, 2004 she replied that the information was exempt fro disclosure under Exemption 7 (Effective Management and Operation of the Public Service) and Exemption 12 (Privacy of an Individual).

On April 11, 2005, following the coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act, Lord Avebury asked in a Parliamentary question for the dates of contacts between Mr Blair and Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond
respectively, since September 30, 2002. Baroness Amos did not respond directly, but said that all meetings were conducted in accordance with the Ministerial Code.

On April 15, 205 Lord Avebury wrote to Baroness Amos, formally submitting a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act, and she passed the matter to the Private Secretary at 10 Downing Street, who said that the information
requested was indeed held, but was exempt under Sections 36(2)(b)(i), (ii and 36(2)(c ) of the Act (Prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs). He acknowledged that there were public interest factors in favour of disclosure, but these were outweighed by the need for the Prime Minister to be able to undertake free and frank discussions without the timing of these being disclosable.

On July 27 Lord Avebury wrote to the Information Commissioner, asking him to overrule the decision to withhold the information. On August 17 the Assistant Commissioner Mr Phil Boyd wrote to say that he had put the complaint to the
Freedom of Information Officer at the Cabinet Office, and on September 30, 2005, the Managing Director of the Cabinet Office, Colin Balmer CB wrote to Lord Avebury saying that he had conducted a review, and was satisfied that the
release of the information requested would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs, and that disclosure of the timing of exchanges with stakeholders could reveal the content of the discussion.

On October 3 Lord Avebury wrote to the Deputy Information Commissioner, asking him to overrule the Prime Minister's office and the Cabinet Office, and cause the information to be released. Again the Assistant commissioner wrote to the Cabinet Office, and the Permanent Secretary Mr Howell James CB replied on March 29, 2006 saying that the 'qualified person' who had given them his opinion on the exemption was David Miliband MP, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, but observing that some of the Prime Minister's contacts were in his capacity as Leader of the Labour Party, and those would not be covered by the Freedom of Information Act. But it made sense for him to cover official and political matters in the same conversation.

In the Decision Notice finally issued by the Information Commissioner on July 3, 2006, it was ruled that contacts of an official nature between Mr Blair and Rupert Murdoch or Richard Desmond as the case may be were disclosable, but
other meetings were not. The distinction was to be made according to whether any minute had been taken of the meeting or telephone call. Notice of appeal to the Information Tribunal was lodged on August 3, 2006, asking for a ruling that dates of all the contacts should be released, on the grounds that it was not possible to draw a distinction between different categories of meetings or telephone calls.

With this appeal pending, and 10 months after it was originally lodged, the day before evidence was due to be served on the parties in the Information Tribunal case and the day after Gordon Brown took office, the Information Tribunal made the surprise announcement that the information requested was to be released.

The information shows a regular series of meetings between the then Prime Minister and media moguls.

Tamsin Allen of Bindman ft Partners, Lord Avebury's solicitors, said:

"The Cabinet Office argued that meetings between Murdoch and Blair were not 'official' meetings because they were not minuted and the information was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. That argument was always tenuous and it was therefore not unexpected that this information would eventually reach the public domain. What is
surprising is the timing of the announcement (the day after Tony Blair's resignation) and the fact that the Government sought to suppress the information for so long ".

Lord Avebury said:

'This is a welcome blow for the cause of freedom of information, but it shouldn't have taken so much time and effort to extract information that was so clearly of great public interest. Rupert Murdoch has exerted his influence behind the scenes on a range of policies on which he is known to have strong views including the regulation of broadcasting and the Iraq war. The public can now scrutinize the timing of his contacts with the former Prime Minister, to see whether they can be linked to events in the outside world, as the Managing Director of the Cabinet Office".

"One hopes that the timing of the Government's decision to capitulate indicates that under Gordon Brown's leadership, freedom of information will be made a reality."

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