Leveson Inquiry: Papers' influence 'overestimated by politicians'

Evgeny Lebedev Evgeny Lebedev said he had never been asked for his support by a prime minister

Newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev has said politicians overestimate the influence of newspapers as he revealed the extent of his meetings with leaders.

The owner of the Independent and Evening Standard told the Leveson Inquiry that he had met David Cameron four times and Ed Miliband twice.

The inquiry into press standards is now focusing on the relationship between newspapers and politicians.

News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch appears on Wednesday, a day after son James.

'Robust press'

Asked about his meetings with political leaders, Mr Lebedev said: "I think politicians generally overestimate the influence newspapers have on political processes in this country."

They paid "too much attention to what the press say", he said.

Mr Lebedev added that newspaper owners should be able to meet senior politicians as long as they did not "attempt to influence policy".

"I am interested in finding out about government policy and what is going on in government and politicians are interested in finding out about what is going on in the media world."

He went on: "One of the extraordinary things about this country is a very robust and diverse press, and I think that has to be protected."

Two newspaper proprietors. Two powerful people perfectly relaxed about their relationships with politicians.

Evgeny Lebedev, at the London Evening Standard and Independent, argued the number of such encounters didn't matter. Rather the focus should be on whether or not policy was influenced as a result of such meetings.

Aidan Barclay, at the Telegraph, says it with flowers - well, plants to be precise - which he sends MPs at Christmas. He also texts David Cameron - not that often, he insisted, but it was good to go direct to the intended recipient.

He said his family employed 20,000 people - 1,000 of whom work at the Telegraph newspapers. It was his duty to get to know politicians.

Evgeny Lebedev and Aidan Barclay were the starters. On Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch will be the Leveson main course.

He warned of the danger of "becoming a society where every institution, every element of democracy becomes too feeble".

"So politicians become too feeble; police become too feeble; the country itself becomes too feeble; if the press also becomes feeble, then what we get is what I would call the tyranny of consensus.

"Then everyone is afraid, or thinks twice or has to check twice, before a step they make, a comment they make."

Mr Lebedev said he had witnessed the damage to countries that resulted from a lack of press freedom, including in his native Russia.

Telegraph Media Group chairman Aidan Barclay told the inquiry that he thought it was the duty of "most businessmen to get to know the politicians that make rules and regulations that affect their business".

He said that he had had a relaxed and social relationship with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, while he and Gordon Brown used to send each other articles on economics.

Mr Barclay said his relationship with David Cameron was cordial, businesslike and friendly, and the hearing heard details of text messages that Mr Barclay had sent to the current prime minister.

The media boss warned against over-regulating the newspaper industry, saying he remained a "believer in self-regulation".

"The media industry employs about 250,000 people in this country. The indiscretions, or alleged indiscretions, involve a relatively small number of people," he said.

"We don't want to destroy the industry through over-regulation."

Undue influence?

Earlier, Sky News boss John Ryley admitted that the company broke the law by hacking emails.

The broadcaster admits hacking accounts of John Darwin, who faked his own death in a canoe, and his wife Anne.

Telegraph boss's text to Cameron: "If you can scrap talk of bank tax, other countries won't go along with it anyway"

Sky has previously said the action was in the public interest and amounted to "responsible journalism".

But Lord Leveson asked Mr Ryley: "Where does the Ofcom code give authority to a breach of the criminal law?" and he replied: "It doesn't."

The regulator Ofcom has launched an investigation into email hacking by Sky News.

The inquiry - launched in the wake of revelations about the News of the World hacking the phones of prominent people - is resuming at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London after a break of almost three weeks.

It has already looked at the relationship between the press and the public, including phone hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour, and the relationships between the press and police.

This week will be dominated by the Murdochs and their companies, who will give evidence to the inquiry for the first time.

On Tuesday, James Murdoch is likely to be asked why it took him so long to appreciate the full extent of phone hacking at the News of the World (NoW).

He resigned as the executive chairman of News International in February.

Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, 81-year-old News Corporation chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch will be questioned about practices at his British newspapers in the light of the phone-hacking scandal which led to the closure of the NoW.

He is likely to be asked whether he exerted undue influence over British public life through his papers and his regular meetings with top politicians.

The court is expected to be packed for his evidence sessions.

It will be the billionaire's highest-profile public appearance since he gave evidence to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee last July.

Then, he told MPs he met David Cameron "within days" of the 2010 general election and was invited to Downing Street by Gordon Brown "many times". Tony Blair is godfather to one of his children.

Mr Murdoch told MPs it was the "most humble day" of his life and apologised for the phone-hacking scandal, but the session was disrupted when a protester attacked him with a foam pie.

The inquiry has already heard from Richard Desmond, owner of the Express and Daily Star titles.

It is expected to take evidence from Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday owner Lord Rothermere in the coming weeks.

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