September 22, 2023

Meetings Indicate British Officials’ Links to Murdochs

Pressure on Mr. Osborne mounted Tuesday as details of his extensive meetings with the Murdochs and leaders of the News Corporation’s British subsidiary, News International, were released.

A diary posted on the official Web site of the Exchequer showed that his encounters continued even after a new police inquiry into hacking had begun, and as the government neared a crucial decision on the Murdochs’ $12 billion bid, subsequently abandoned, to take complete control of British Sky Broadcasting, the country’s dominant satellite broadcaster.

The political significance of what appeared to be Mr. Osborne’s husbanding of the government’s ties with the Murdoch empire lay in large part in his role as the chief architect of Prime Minister David Cameron’s contentious program of harsh austerity measures. Those measures have made Mr. Osborne, 40, one of the most divisive figures in British politics. Any hint that he is politically vulnerable in the hacking scandal could affect the government’s declared resolve to hold unwaveringly to its economic policies, which combine steep spending cuts with tax increases.

The release on Tuesday of new data showing that the economy grew only 0.2 percent in the second quarter, well short of the economic acceleration the government had hoped to show, added to the pressure on Mr. Osborne.

The figures prompted new criticism from the Labour Party and economists opposed to the austerity program, with Labour’s chief economic spokesman, Ed Balls, calling Mr. Osborne “breathtakingly complacent,” and demanding immediate measures to stimulate the economy.

But Mr. Osborne stuck to his guns. “We are traveling a difficult road, but it is the only road that leads to a lasting private sector recovery, and to the jobs we all want to see,” he said.

Mr. Osborne has also drawn criticism from within the Conservative Party for his role in hiring Mr. Coulson. According to two party insiders, Mr. Osborne had pushed for Mr. Coulson, partly out of a belief that it would help cement Rupert Murdoch’s support in the national elections.

The posting of Mr. Osborne’s meetings with News Corporation executives followed Mr. Cameron’s disclosure that he had 26 meetings and social engagements with Rupert Murdoch, his son James and their lieutenants since taking office in May 2010. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has released his own list, showing 15 meetings or social contacts with News International executives over the same period.

According to the Exchequer’s listing, which did not include interviews with journalists, Mr. Osborne met 10 times with the two Murdochs and their former lieutenant, Rebekah Brooks. These were among 16 meetings or social occasions Mr. Osborne attended at which News International executives were present — representing a third of all meetings he had with senior figures from all of Britain’s media organizations. Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks, who resigned this month as chief executive of News International, are among a group of people who worked for News International and The News of the World who have been arrested in connection with the phone hacking case.

Ms. Brooks is among those who have said publicly that it was Mr. Osborne’s idea to appoint Mr. Coulson as the Conservative Party’s chief media adviser in 2007, a post that carried him into Downing Street after the election. Mr. Coulson resigned from his government post in January, citing “distractions” from the phone hacking scandal.

Scrutiny of Mr. Osborne’s encounters with the Murdochs and their top British executives seemed likely to focus on a meeting in April with James Murdoch and Ms. Brooks for what was described in the document as a “general discussion.” That meeting occurred as a reinvigorated police inquiry began to gain pace with the arrest of senior News of the World journalists. Another occasion on the list, with Rupert Murdoch in December, occurred two weeks before the government was to rule on his proposed takeover of the remaining shares of British Sky Broadcasting.

A spokesman for Mr. Osborne, referring to the April meeting, said Mr. Osborne had explained to James Murdoch and Ms. Brooks that he could not discuss the takeover bid, which was being handled, on Mr. Cameron’s orders, by another official.

The spokesman added that “the topic was not raised at any other discussion” with the Murdoch executives. But Tom Watson, a Labour member of Parliament, called the frequency of Mr. Osborne’s meetings “absolutely remarkable,” and he called on the chancellor to disclose what was discussed at those meetings.

Don Van Natta Jr. and Jo Becker contributed reporting.

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