One of Rupert Murdoch’s longest-standing critics got his chance to fight back against the mogul today, providing an inside account of Murdoch’s influence over his U.K. newspapers in his early days on the British media scene and launching the latest volley in a 30-year feud.
Sir Harold Evans, the former editor of the venerable Times of London, whom Murdoch forced out after buying the newspaper in 1981, appeared via video link at the Leveson inquiry on Thursday. The inquiry has, in recent weeks, heard testimony from key players in the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed Murdoch’s News of the World, including Murdoch, his son James, and his former lieutenant Rebekah Brooks. Evans described the 1981 Times takeover as a “seminal event” in Murdoch’s path to far-reaching influence over British public life. His ouster from the newspaper, Evans said, was “the saddest moment of my life.”
Evans—who is married to Tina Brown, the editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and a contributor to the magazine and website—has long charged Murdoch with eliminating editorial independence at his newspapers and using the publications as a means to exert undue power over Britain’s politicians. The relationship between Murdoch and Evans quickly proved contentious after Murdoch took control of The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times, which Evans had edited for 14 years before moving to the daily after Murdoch’s takeover. In his testimony today, Evans described how he and Murdoch “almost came to fisticuffs” when Murdoch disagreed with the Times's invitation to a recent Nobel Prize winner to write about monetary policy (it turned out to be critical of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). Evans resigned after only a year, over what he has long described as disagreements with Murdoch’s editorial interference. “I was disgusted, dismayed, and demoralized,” he said today.
“I believed that The Times should be open to different opinions, and he believed that it should not be,” he added.
The vitriol between the two men has festered ever since Evans’s departure from The Times. During Evans’s testimony, Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the judge leading the inquiry, cited remarks Evans made about Murdoch in 1982 that described the mogul as “evil incarnate,” and a man who “had his heart removed long ago together with all his moral faculties and human sensibilities.”
Murdoch, for his part, seemed agitated during his own Leveson testimony when the subject of Evans came up. In his questioning of the mogul, Robert Jay, the chief counsel to the inquiry, referenced passages of Evans’s memoir, Good Times, Bad Times, which claimed that Murdoch’s overbearing personality dominated his media empire and influenced everything from its endorsements to its reporting methods. "I give instructions to my editors all over the world—why shouldn't I in London?" Evans quotes Murdoch as saying in the book.
Under oath, Murdoch disputed Evans’s characterizations, claiming that he’d been forced to fire Evans after a staff insurrection against the editor, and even that Evans had once approached him in private to ask what the newspaper’s editorial line should be. He also made a point of saying that he’d never read Evans’s book. Writing at The Daily Beast, Evans called Murdoch’s testimony “comic and sad,” describing his allegations as “spectacular displays of imagination.” “He responds to serious criticism by a biting wisecrack or diversionary personal attack,” Evans added. “What is denied most sharply invariably turns out to be irrefutably true.”
In his testimony today, Evans sought to paint one such instance as the genesis of Murdoch’s influence in British politics: a recently revealed secret lunch between Murdoch and Thatcher in 1981. Long a subject of speculation—and denied by both Murdoch and Thatcher—the meeting has been seized upon by Murdoch critics since details were unveiled in a batch of previously unreleased documents in March.
At the time of the meeting, Murdoch was in the process of bidding to purchase The Times and The Sunday Times, a deal which solidified his place as the leading force in British news. At the meeting, according to the documents, Murdoch stressed his political kinship with Thatcher and outlined his plans for the takeover. While the documents show that Murdoch did not address the issue of whether his bid should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Thatcher herself brought up the issue in a government meeting several weeks later, and the government ultimately decided to approve Murdoch’s bid for the papers.
In his questioning, chief counsel Jay asked Murdoch whether he implicitly expected Thatcher to support his Times bid in return for his political allegiance. “I didn’t ask for any help, and I received none,” Murdoch replied. “I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything.”
Murdoch critics have seen echoes of the meeting in the recent controversy over the bid by Murdoch’s News Corp. for a majority stake in the British broadcaster BSkyB, which also needed to secure a pass from anti-monopoly regulators in order to be approved. The bid was expected to be approved before it was scuppered by the phone hacking scandal this summer. Emails released by News Corp. to the inquiry last month showed what seemed to be a secret back channel between a senior company lobbyist and the office of Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary who had quasi-judicial authority over the bid. Hunt has denied wrongdoing, but the revelations lead to the resignation of a senior aide. They have also intensified pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been criticized throughout the scandal for being too close to Murdoch and his deputies. Both Cameron and Hunt are expected to appear before the inquiry in the coming weeks.
Evans said today that the Times takeover was relevant to current events because it displayed "the manifestations of the same culture of too close a connection between one powerful media group and politicians."