LONDON - As the judicial inquiry into the British press sifts painstakingly through competing contentions about the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, a former prime minister, John Major, disclosed Tuesday, for what he said was the first time, that Murdoch withdrew his newspapers’ support for the Conservatives after Major refused a demand for changes in his policies on Europe.
The assertion, which came during a morning of testimony, offered some clues to the extent of Murdoch’s perceived influence on British public life - a key issue under scrutiny by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson’s inquiry into a phone-hacking scandal involving Murdoch’s newspapers. There was no immediate response from Murdoch, who has told the inquiry that he never asked for anything from British prime ministers.
But it was the second time in two days that a former prime minister had given an account of his relationship with Murdoch that differed diametrically in tone and content from that given by Murdoch, who testified before the panel in April. On Monday, another former prime minister, Gordon Brown, denied Murdoch’s account of a telephone conversation, saying it never took place. Murdoch’s News Corp. said he stood by his version of events.
Major coupled his revelation with criticism of the role played by Murdoch’s newspapers, saying some parts of his media empire “have lowered the general quality of the British media.’’
“I think they have lowered the tone,’’ he said. “The interaction that there has been with politicians has done no good either to the press or to the politicians.’’
He described Murdoch’s influence “whether he exercises it or not’’ as “unattractive.’’
“It does seem to me an oddity that in a nation which prides itself on one man, one vote, we should have one man who can’t vote with a large collection of newspapers and a large share of the electronic media outlets,’’ Major said.
Major was among several political leaders past and present set to testify before the inquiry over four days this week. The concentration of high-ranking figures at the inquiry has provoked speculation that the hearings will be among the most politically charged so far in the investigation. The hearings will culminate Thursday with a daylong appearance by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Major said he met Murdoch three times in his seven years in office. On the last occasion, he said, in February 1997, Murdoch told him that if the ruling Conservatives did not change their policies toward the European Union, his newspapers would not maintain their long-running support for Major’s party.
“He wished me to change our European policies,’’ Major said. “If we couldn’t change our European policies, his papers could not, would not, support our Conservative government.’’
Shortly after that meeting, Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, The Sun, switched allegiance to Tony Blair’s Labor Party, which won the general election in May 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative rule.
News International, the British newspaper subsidiary of News Corp., rebutted Major’s remarks in a statement, saying its British titles “did not act in unison’’ in the 1997 vote, with The Sunday Times supporting Major, The Times of London neutral, and The Sun and News of the World supporting Labor.
Murdoch’s sway over British politics emerged in a more textured light when Brown, a Labor politician, leveled thinly veiled charges that the Conservatives had struck a kind of compact with Murdoch to secure his support in the 2010 elections, which thrust Labor from power.
Within hours of Brown’s testimony, the serving chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, a senior Conservative, took the stand at the inquiry to dismiss such notions as nonsense.
The exchange illustrated some of the tripwires: No politician of any party wants to allow an impression of being, or having been, in Murdoch’s pocket.