By Bob Duncan
Labour Leader Ed Miliband has admitted meeting Rupert Murdoch at a private party last summer but failing to raise the issue of phone hacking.
The Labour leader, who endorsed the tycoon’s Sun newspaper shortly after winning the Labour leadership contest, said he spoke to Mr Murdoch for a few minutes at a News International summer party, “I believe I should have raised the issue of phone hacking with him, I didn’t” said Mr Miliband.
Mr Miliband who was giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry into press standards suggested that Rupert Murdoch should be forced to sell off much of his British media empire.
The Labour leader said his “strong instinct” was that the media mogul’s share of the market was “too much” as he called for the Leveson Inquiry to look at capping ownership insisting “there must be lower thresholds for concentration”.
While he had “no worries” about a company owning one fifth of the market there was a “question of between 20-30%, he said.
News International held 37% of the market until the closure of the News of the World but still retained a 34% share, the inquiry was told.
Mr Miliband said he did not believe one person should control more than one third of the British media. Mr Miliband said he had “no worries” about someone owning up to 20% of the newspaper market but there was “a question of between 20- 30%”.
Although Miliband did not spell out how the reduction in market share could be managed, it would be easily achieved by a sale of either the Sun or the Times.
That would unwind the joint ownership of the papers, which has existed since 1981 when Murdoch was allowed to buy the Times and Sunday Times without a referral to the competition authorities.
He also told the inquiry he believed some kind of statutory regulation of the press was required but that system should not be used to force newspapers to provide balanced coverage in the same way. He called for a system that provided “fast-track justice” for individuals and was independent of the press and of Government.
Earlier Miliband had said he believed News Corp had a sense of “power without responsibility” which meant that some of the company’s newspapers could operate with a “sense of immunity” and engage in practices such as phone hacking as conducted by the News of the World.
The Labour leader, towards the end of his two-hour evidence session, said that his “aim was not to stifle one particular organisation or another” but to foster “plurality and a sense that … one organisation does not exercise overweening power”.
He told the inquiry into media ethics that all political parties had to accept their share of responsibility for the affair, which led to the closure of the News of the World.
Miliband called for a review of the existing cross-media ownership rules that prevent a publisher with more than 20% of the newspaper market owning more than 20% of ITV. But he offered few details beyond questioning whether “you should have an overall limit about how much control one organisation has on the market”.
Miliband also became the first major political leader to argue that any successor to the Press Complaints Commission should be recognised in law – in contrast to the view adopted by the PCC’s chairman Lord Hunt, who has previously argued against the introduction of any kind of legislation.
He said that he would support “statutory support” for a reformed PCC – an apparent reference to the model of statutory recognition of an independent press regulator as adopted in Ireland. But Miliband said that any PCC-related law would have to include “constitutional safeguards on the freedom of the press”.
Under questioning from inquiry lead counsel Robert Jay QC he accepted Westminster was ‘too close’ to News Corporation and other publishers.
‘We were too close in the sense that meant that when there were abuses by the press we didn’t speak out,’ Mr Miliband said. It was a sense of fear I suppose in some senses about speaking out on those issues that were affecting ordinary members of the public.’
The Labour leader continued: ‘We didn’t speak out on those issues where there was increasing evidence about News International’s behaviour.’
Miliband conceded that he was “too slow to speak out” about phone-hacking, adding, in his defence, that taking on the press was like taking on “an 800lb gorilla”.
Asked whether he spoke to Rupert Murdoch at News International’s 2011 summer party, he said the pair had a “short conversation” about US politics and international affairs. In retrospect, he added, he should have raised the subject of phone-hacking, but failed to do so.