LONDON — Former British prime minister John Major told an inquiry Tuesday that Rupert Murdoch demanded he change his policy on Europe, and accused the tycoon of lowering the quality of parts of the media.
Major said the influential Australian-born tycoon made the demand in return for support from his newspapers ahead of the 1997 general election.
The claim contradicted the News Corp chief's own testimony and came the day after another former premier, Gordon Brown, also accused Murdoch of misleading the Leveson inquiry into press ethics.
Major, who was the Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, said he had dinner with Murdoch in February 1997 as part of an effort to get closer to the media baron's newspapers ahead of the election.
"It became apparent in discussion that Mr Murdoch really didn't like our European policies, which was no surprise to me, and he wished me to change our European policies," Major told the inquiry.
"It is not very often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says 'I would like you to change your policy and if you don't change your policy my organisation cannot support you.'"
Major says he told Murdoch there was "no question of us changing our policies."
Murdoch's Sun tabloid, Britain's best-selling daily newspaper, switched its support to Major's Labour rival Tony Blair shortly afterwards, and Blair went on to win the May 1997 election.
Murdoch told the Leveson inquiry on April 25 that he had "never asked a prime minister for anything", as he tried to downplay his papers' political influence.
At Tuesday's hearing, Major said Murdoch's investment in Britain's newspapers and Sky television channels constituted a "a very substantial contribution to our national life".
But he added: "I do think parts of his media empire have lowered the quality of British media. I think that is a loss."
He also launched an attack on the media baron's influence in Britain, saying it was "slightly odd" that someone who cannot vote in Britain could wield so much power.
"The sheer scale of the influence he (Murdoch) is believed to have, whether he actually exercises it or not, is an unattractive facet of British national life," he said.
The former premier called for media proprietors in Britain to be made personally liable for the actions of their journalists, claiming they had "failed in their responsibility" to properly instruct reporters on press ethics.
Also giving evidence Tuesday, Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband, a long-time critic of Murdoch, said News Corp's British newspaper arm News International had become too dominant.
The company's 37-percent share of the newspaper market and its stake in BSkyB had, he said, led to its "power, lack of accountability and arrogance".
"There should be no interest too powerful in this country, whether it's in banking or in the press or anywhere, that politicians don't speak out about if they think there is wrongdoing," he said.
Miliband said his calls for Rebekah Brooks to resign as chief executive of News International at the height of the phone hacking scandal at the News of World would have been seen as "an act of war" by Murdoch's company.
He admitted he had been "too slow to speak out" about phone hacking and had remained silent on the issue when he met Murdoch at a party last summer.
On Monday, former Labour premier Brown appeared at the inquiry and denied Murdoch's claim that he had telephoned the tycoon in November 2010 threatening to "make war" on News Corp.
News Corp said on Monday that Murdoch "stands by his testimony" regarding Brown.
The inquiry, chaired by senior judge Brian Leveson, was set up by current Prime Minister David Cameron last July in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch's now-closed News of the World tabloid.
Cameron is due to give evidence on Thursday.
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