Leveson inquiry: No secret deal with Murdoch, insists Alex Salmond

ALEX Salmond insisted there was no “quid pro quo” over his backing for News Corp’s BSkyB takeover bid, as he told the Leveson inquiry he had supported the deal because it was good for jobs, not to boost his election chances.

ALEX Salmond insisted there was no “quid pro quo” over his backing for News Corp’s BSkyB takeover bid, as he told the Leveson inquiry he had supported the deal because it was good for jobs, not to boost his election chances.

Alex Salmond makes claim against Observer but has ‘no evidence’ that his phone was hacked

SNP leader denies making an offer to back the BSkyB bid

• First Minister defends relationship with Rupert Murdoch

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In three hours of evidence yesterday, the First Minister said he had been prepared to make the case for the bid to UK ministers, arguing it was his job to back a deal for the company behind a major Scottish employer.

However, he insisted this was not part of a deal with the Murdochs in which his backing for the doomed takeover would be reciprocated with support from the Scottish Sun, the largest-selling daily newspaper north of the Border.

That paper threw its weight behind the SNP before last year’s Holyrood elections, but Mr Salmond said that, while he had sought to persuade the paper of his case, the decision had been made on its merits only.

In a session that saw a relaxed First Minister untroubled by any further revelations on his links to the Murdochs, the First Minister finally confirmed he was not among those who had been told their phone had been hacked by journalists.

However, he said he had been informed his bank account details had been obtained by Observer journalists looking for details about his private life prior to the 1999 Scottish elections.

He said he believed that “illegality was rife across many newspaper titles”.

Mr Salmond said all people, no matter how wealthy or otherwise, should get redress from the courts if they required it However, he insisted people “have the right to be offensive”, saying this was the price for freedom of speech.

The eagerly-awaited session yesterday was expected to throw fresh light on Mr Salmond’s closeness to the News Corp group, following revelations in April that he had been keen to support its doomed takeover of BSkyB, which was being examined by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

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Opponents of the deal had warned it would concentrate too much power in News Corp, but e-mails from the firm’s PR chief, Fred Michel, claimed that Salmond’s office “will call Hunt whenever we need him to” to push for it to go ahead.

A second e-mail recorded how the Scottish Sun was preparing to back the SNP at the election and how “Alex wanted to see whether he could help smooth the way for the process”.

Mr Salmond agreed yesterday that, in talks with James Murdoch, he had said he would make the case for the bid on the basis of what it would do for Scotland.

“I was in favour of what benefited the Scottish economy. I have no responsibility for broadcasting and plurality. But I do have a responsibility for jobs and investment… that is my statutory responsibility.”

He said just as the UK government had been invited to make representations over the decision by Scottish ministers to free the Lockerbie bomber, so it was “entirely legitimate” for him to approach UK ministers on this matter.

He said the question of the Scottish Sun’s support for the SNP was not a factor.

His offer to “smooth the process”, he said, was an attempt to ensure that the Wapping headquarters of News Corp would not be able to block the decision in Scotland – what he described as “a London veto”.

Political opponents last night said Mr Salmond had still failed to provide tangible evidence that the BSkyB takeover would indeed have been a good one for Scotland.

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Mr Salmond noted yesterday that BSkyB employed 36 per cent of its staff in Scotland – without the takeover having happened.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “Alex Salmond admitted he was at Rupert Murdoch’s beck and call and prepared to lobby on his behalf whenever he asked. Yet he offered not one scrap of evidence that Scotland benefited from his closeness to the Murdoch empire.”

In an evidence session of few surprises, the biggest revelation came over his claim about the Observer newspaper. Mr Salmond said his source had informed him the paper even knew he had bought a toy for his nieces at a shop in Linlithgow called “Fun and Games”.

He said: “This caused great anticipation and hope because they believed they thought Fun and Games was more than a conventional toy shop.”

The Guardian Media Group, which owns the Observer, said last night: “As we explained to him last year, on the basis of the information he had given us, we have been unable to find any evidence to substantiate his allegation.”

• A special adviser to the First Minister has been cleared of breaching the ministerial code in his dealings with News International. Labour questioned whether Geoff Aberdein broke the rules or breached the code of conduct after it emerged he told a senior figure at News Corp that Mr Salmond was prepared to lobby on their behalf. Scottish Government Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden he was “satisfied” he had acted properly.