Labour in BSkyB call after Osborne's 16 meetings with Murdoch bosses

THE UK government's close links with the Murdoch media empire has come under fresh scrutiny with the revelation that George Osborne has met News Corporation executives 16 times since the general election.

The news emerged as the government published records of all ministerial contacts with senior media figures in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

The Chancellor had the meetings at a time when News Corp was trying to take over BSkyB. The furore over phone-hacking has since led to News Corp ditching its highly controversial takeover.

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Opposition politicians, who have been fiercely critical of Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to employ the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press spokesman, demanded to know whether the BSkyB bid had been discussed at the meetings.

Labour's John Mann said: "We now need full access, including the publishing of the minutes from these meetings. In particular, we need to know the details of his December 2010 meetings and exactly what was said about the BSkyB bid."

The information released last night also showed Mr Murdoch was the first senior media figure to meet Jeremy Hunt after he was appointed Culture Secretary. The meeting took place before Mr Hunt was given responsibility for ruling on News Corp's BSkyB bid.

The following month, Mr Hunt met James Murdoch, News Corp's chief executive in Europe, for a general discussion. After his assumption of responsibility for the BSkyB takeover bid last December, he had two further meetings with James Murdoch in January to set out the process around the proposed merger.

Mr Osborne met Rupert Murdoch twice, once for what was described as a "general discussion" shortly after taking office in May and the second time in December.

He met former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch on five different occasions each.

The Chancellor met editors of three News International papers, James Harding of the Times, John Witherow of the Sunday Times and Colin Myler of the News of the World.

Business Secretary Vince Cable, who was stripped of responsibility for ruling on whether the BSkyB bid should go ahead after boasting in December that he had "declared war on Rupert Murdoch", did not have as much contact as some of his colleagues with News Corp figures.

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Mr Cable met Times editor Mr Harding in December, though it is unclear whether this was before or after he was stripped of his responsibilities for the BSkyB bid.

The publication of ministers' contacts with media figures was ordered earlier this month by Mr Cameron when he revealed he had met News Corp executives on 26 occasions.Education Secretary Michael Gove has met News Corp executives 11 times since the general election in May 2010. Mr Gove, a former journalist on the Times, met Rupert Murdoch seven times and Ms Brooks eight times at events that included lunches, dinners and other social gatherings.

A spokesman for Mr Gove said: "He did not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs and isn't at all embarrassed about his meetings, most of which have been about education which is his job."

The on-going phone-hacking scandal reared its head during former prime minister Tony Blair's speaking tour of Australia.

Mr Blair, who is giving A$1,000 (670) a seat lectures, said the News of the World's hacking of murdered school girl Milly Dowler's phone was "despicable".

When asked if Rupert Murdoch should step down as News Corp's chairman and chief executive, Mr Blair said it was a matter for the company.

He said he did not believe his phone had been hacked by the News of the World.