Freedom of information files released to the Guardian reveal how the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch wields extensive lobbying clout over the Blair government.
Mr Murdoch secured private reassurances from ministers during heavy lobbying that he would be able to buy Channel Five if he wanted to, according to partly censored documents released by the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell.
In previously undisclosed meetings, representatives of the Murdoch empire were able to lobby ministers six times in a crucial five-month period when an important bill was passing through parliament.
Citizens’ groups have said they were unable to get similar face-to-face access to ministers.
There has been longstanding speculation that Mr Murdoch wants to buy Five, although he has denied that he intends to do so. His opponents fear that he would exert too much power if he was able to own a terrestrial channel as well as the satellite station Sky and four national newspapers.
The issue flared up when the government took a bill to modernise media industries through parliament. In what was widely described as the “Murdoch clause”, ministers proposed to relax the rules and allow newspaper owners to buy terrestrial television channels.
Campaigners have alleged the clause was inserted by Downing Street after Mr Murdoch lobbied Tony Blair. It provoked fierce opposition from MPs and peers led by Lord Puttnam, the film-maker.
The bill, with provisions that would in theory allow Channel Five to become part of the Murdoch empire – albeit with some strings attached – became law in July 2003.
Documents released under freedom of information provisions and published today on Guardian Unlimited, the Guardian’s website, show that as the bill started to go through the Commons in 2003, Mr Murdoch’s lobbyists stepped up pressure on ministers. They wanted to confirm their free hand to take over other papers and TV stations.
Les Hinton, the chief executive of News International, led a group of newspaper industry executives who met Ms Jowell on February 13. Top of the agenda were proposals in the bill to reform the rules under which newspaper owners could buy other papers.
Ten days later, on February 24, Ms Jowell went to a News International drinks party for the outgoing Sun editor, David Yelland. Shortly afterwards, she had a private lunch with Mr Hinton, on March 5.
On April 2, three Sky executives met Ms Jowell to set out their concerns about the bill. Sky’s chief executive, Tony Ball, head of government affairs, Sheila Cassells, and lawyer Deanna Bates presented Ms Jowell with a list of their worries.
Her officials told her : “You should be aware that these issues are particularly detailed, in some cases relating to the drafting of the bill, and might be better dealt with at official level.
“In fact, these issues have already been discussed at official level on a number of occasions.”
The Sky executives were troubled about one of the main clauses of the bill which imposed a specific duty on the new regulator, Ofcom, to maintain a diverse range of owners of television and radio stations.