How Rupert Murdoch’s executives pressured prime minister over missing Madeleine
Prime minister David Cameron is accused of bowing to pressure from News International executives to order British police to investigate Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in Portugal. Madeleine was three when she went missing in 2007.
A former chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), Lord Harris, condemned what he believes was “direct political interference” in the case.
Harris told Exaro that Cameron was wrong to intervene in an “operational policing decision” by asking the Metropolitan Police Service to review the case. British police had no jurisdiction in Portugal, he said.
The issue is set to return to haunt Cameron with the publication on Thursday of Lord Justice Leveson’s report on his inquiry into newspaper practices. It is one of many issues explored by the inquiry.
Harris said that Cameron requested the Met review following pressure from the newspaper group’s top-selling tabloid, The Sun, “and goodness knows what else.”
Police sources question why Cameron was willing to set aside £2.5 million for the review from the Home Office’s contingency fund and to see the Met tie up many specialist officers on the case.
The £2.5 million will be spent by next month, say Whitehall sources, but the government is prepared to commit more money to the review – ‘Operation Grange’.
Harris said: “It is not just a matter of compensating for officer time. There is only a limited number of senior detectives, experienced detectives. Obviously, someone investigating this cannot be investigating something else.”
A Labour peer, Harris was the MPA’s first chairman, from 2000 until 2004.
Exaro has established that Leveson’s inquiry team shares concerns about the lobbying behind the scenes by News International (NI) over the review – pressure that went beyond The Sun’s public campaign.
Rupert Murdoch, who controls NI’s parent company, News Corporation, told Leveson during his testimony: “I have never asked a prime minister for anything.”
However, in the McCann case, Murdoch’s executives did ask Cameron for something.
Exaro has learnt that Leveson’s team was given a confidential briefing about the episode by a source familiar with NI’s private lobbying for the review.
The briefing led to some telling questions by Robert Jay, counsel to the inquiry, during the hearings. However, the exchanges were overlooked in coverage of the inquiry amid many other disclosures.
Speaking to Exaro, the source who briefed the Leveson team said: “Downing Street was told that The Sun was going to demand a review, and that the prime minister should agree to the request because The Sun had supported Cameron in the election.”
“A message was relayed via News International to Number 10 that unless the prime minister ordered the review by the Metropolitan Police, The Sun would put the home secretary, Theresa May, on the front page every day until The Sun’s demands were met.”
A source close to the McCann family confirmed that two senior NI executives met two of Cameron’s closest aides in May 2011 to make the demands.
NI had negotiated to serialise a book about Madeleine’s disappearance, authored by her mother, Kate.
Madeleine’s parents had long campaigned publicly for a review. They could not be reached directly for comment, but a spokesman for them said that they were “very grateful” for the continued funding of the review.
The NI executives told Cameron’s aides that the prime minister must order a review, the second source confirmed. Otherwise, said the executives, The Sun would publish an open letter from Madeleine’s parents on the front page pleading for one.
They also threatened that The Sun would put May on the front page every day until the demand was met.
Kate McCann wrote in her book, ‘Madeleine’, that May did not initially take up her request for a review.
The home secretary told Leveson that pressure from NI did not lead her to back a review.
A spokesman for Downing Street would not address questions about whether Cameron was strong-armed into ordering a review.
Daisy Dunlop, NI spokeswoman, said that the company would make no comment about the case.