Finally freed: details of Blair-Murdoch talks

The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury was last night thought to be celebrating a dual victory: one for himself and one for the freedom of information.

Four years ago, the Lord requested that contact between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul, be released under The Freedom of Information Act.

Refusal to do so by the Cabinet Office prompted the Lord to file a complaint under the act, which restated that details of meetings and conversations between the two men to be released.

Like members of the press and general public, the peer wanted to know the extent of Mr Murdoch’s “undemocratic influence” on No.10 concerning the BBC, Europe and, crucially, war in Iraq.

However Downing Street officials, backed by the Cabinet Office, said revealing the dates of conversations Mr Murdoch had with Tony Blair would hurt the then prime minister’s ability to hold “free and frank” discussions with other people.

But last July, the information commissioner disagreed, and ruled that official contacts could be disclosed. The Cabinet Office appealed the ruling only to capitulate 10 months later.

Yesterday the disclosures were released. Obtained by a national newspaper, they reportedly state that Mr Blair spoke to the News Corporation chairman three times in nine days in the run-up to invading Iraq.

Out of a total of six conversations between March 2003 and October 2004, three took place on March 11, 13 and 19; military action against Iraq began early on March 20.

No further details of the conversations, which took place over the telephone, are available and no details of the calls or conversations between the two have been released.

“I was not asking for the content of the discussions to be revealed,” Lord Avebury said last July, after the information commissioner’s ruling.

“It would still be for the public to judge what subjects Mr Murdoch may have raised with the prime minister.”

Speaking yesterday, the Lord told The Guardian: “This is a welcome blow for the cause of freedom of information, but it shouldn’t have taken so much time and effort.”

He added: “The public can now scrutinise the timing of his contacts with the former prime minister, to see whether they can be linked to events in the outside world. 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.”

Observers question whether the disclosures of the Blair-Murdoch talks would have been released if a member of the public, rather than a Liberal Democrat Lord, had made the same request.


20th July 2007

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