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Freedom of Information Act

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The Freedom of Information Act became operational this week. Most of the important information being requested is being rejected on grounds of “national security”. However, despite the fact that the government has been very busy destroying files over the last few months, journalists have started obtaining some interesting information about our recent past.

One of the most interesting concerns the power of Rupert Murdoch. David Leigh of the Guardian has discovered details of previously undisclosed meetings between Tony Blair and his ministers and Murdoch (and his representatives). These meetings took place during a five month period when the government was in the process of taking a bill through parliament on the ownership of the media.

Documents obtained by Leigh show that the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, had a private dinner with Les Hinton, the chief executive of News International, on 5th March, 2003. The following month Jowell had a secret meeting with Sky’s chief executive, Tony Ball. Soon afterwards Jowell inserted a new clause to the bill. This clause (now known as the Murdoch Clause) relaxed the rules on media ownership and allowed newspaper owners to buy terrestrial television channels.

What did Tony Blair get in return? Several things including a £3.5m advance on his memoirs to be published by Murdoch’s company HarperCollins (Margaret Thatcher and John Major negotiated similar deals when they were prime minister. This enabled Blair to get a mortgage on his new home in London.

No doubt the Murdoch newspaper empire also agreed to support Tony Blair’s government. So far it is the Murdoch’s Sun, Times and the Sunday Times that have been the most loyal of all the national newspapers. After all, Blair has always believed that famous newspaper headline that suggested that it is the Sun newspaper that decides which political party wins general elections.

The Liberal Democrats have suggested that the UK government should adopt the White House practice of publishing a register of official dinner party guests and topics discussed at Chequers, his official country residence.

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