Sir John Major has said Rupert Murdoch threatened him that he would no longer support him unless the former prime minister changed his European policy.
During a firm and composed morning of evidence at the Leveson Inquiry in which he criticised the media baron, Major recalled the February 1997 meeting with Murdoch as “not something I would easily forget”.
“He made it clear that he disliked my European policies which he wished me to change,” Major said. “If not, his papers could not and would not support the Conservative government.”
“There was no question of changing policies,” Major added.
Murdoch told the Inquiry in April he had “never asked for anything directly from a politician”.
“Certainly he never asked for anything directly from me but he was not averse to pressing for policy changes,” Major said of the proprietor.
“I haven’t talked about this conversation at any stage over the past 15 years but now I am under oath,” he added.
Major also denied Kelvin MacKenzie’s anecdote that the former Sun editor had threatened to pour a “large bucket of shit” over Major during a phone call in 1992 about how the paper would cover the Black Wednesday crisis. Major said the story had acquired a “mythical” status.
“I dare say it wasn’t an especially productive call,” he added.
Major said it came as “no surprise” to him when the Murdoch-owned Sun switched its allegiance to support the Labour party ahead of the 1997 general election. Given its criticism of his government from 1992 to 1997, it would have been “difficult”, Major said, for the paper to support the Conservative party.
The former Tory prime minister made a veiled warning against currying favour with Murdoch. While he said he recognised the media baron’s “enormous skill as businessman” in building up broadcaster Sky and boosting newspapers such as the Times and Sunday Times, he said the “sheer scale” of his supposed influence was a “an unattractive facet in British national life.”
He added that he believed parts of Murdoch’s media empire had “lowered the general quality” of the British media. “I think that is a loss,” Major said.
Major stressed more than once the need to raise the standards of the worst excesses of the British press to the standards operated by the good. “The bad is just a cancer in the journalistic body, not the journalistic body as a whole,” he said, attacking culprits of dealing in caricatures and taking “a particular point and stretch[ing] it beyond what is reasonable”.
He added that editors and proprietors should bear the responsibility for wrongdoing, arguing that the Inquiry was taking place because “those who could have ensured proper behaviour have not done so.” He said reporters operated “within a culture” and found it “difficult to believe” that editors and proprietors do not know how stories are obtained.
Major conceded he was at times “much too sensitive” about what was written about him in the press, but said he was not appearing at the Inquiry to complain. ”I’ve long since moved on from that,” he said.
He added that he did not inherit the “natural affinity with the press” that his predecessor Baroness Thatcher had earned, noting that her right-wing views appealed to national newspaper editors and proprietors, and that she admired “buccaneering businessmen” who were prepared to take risks.
The Inquiry continues this afternoon with evidence from Labour leader Ed Miliband and deputy leader Harriet Harman.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson