The claim over the dropping of the “top slicing” policy comes on top of a raft of evidence of the close relationship between David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – whose deputy chief operating officer is his son, James – thrown up by the phone hacking scandal.
Labour said Mr Cameron now faced fresh questions over the direction of the Conservatives’ entire media policy for many years, amid allegations that it was effectively being dictated by the interests of News Corp, which owns 39 per cent of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
The Prime Minister has been criticised for hiring Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who was arrested by police investigating phone hacking, as his director of communications.
He is also good friends with Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International, who has also been arrested.
The latest claim adds to similar charges that Mr Cameron, while in opposition, changed his party’s policies to suit the interests of the Murdoch empire.
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A spokesman for Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, denied the “top slicing” claim last night.
Early in 2008, the Tories came up with a radical plan to “top slice” the BBC’s licence fee, then £3.2 billion a year, and “parcel out” cash to other companies so that Britain had a “plurality of public service broadcasters”.
A later version of the proposal was for £150 million of licence fee money to go to Channel 4, which has to fulfil certain public service obligations including making educational programmes and demonstrating cultural diversity.
However, in November 2008 Mr Cameron effectively ripped up the plan, declaring: “I’m sceptical of that. I think we need to look at this issue of top-slicing but I think there are quite a lot of difficulties with it.”
No such proposal was included in the Conservative manifesto at last year’s election.
Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website, who also writes for The Sunday Telegraph, was told at this time by a senior Tory who was one of the architects of the policy that it was to be abandoned after a request by James Murdoch.
The reason was said to be that Mr Murdoch wanted to preserve the effective duopoly between the BBC and Sky because this suited News Corp.
A senior source said: “The last thing Sky wanted was other broadcasters getting a slice of the licence fee. The policy was amended accordingly.”
In 2009, the “Digital Britain” white paper by the then Labour government proposed a top-slicing deal which would have seen £130 million taken from the BBC’s licence fee and used to fund independent regional news as well as children’s programmes.
However, Mr Hunt, then the shadow culture secretary, described the report as “disappointing” and the Liberal Democrats came out officially against top-slicing.
Another well-placed Tory MP last night backed up the account of events which saw Mr Cameron exert pressure on Mr Hunt to drop the policy in 2008.
The claim will turn the spotlight back on News Corp’s bid – currently suspended – to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB that it does not already own.
Just one month ago Mr Hunt appeared set to wave the bid through, only for it to get ensnared in the phone-hacking crisis after it was revealed that the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl, had been intercepted by an investigator working for the News of the World.
News Corp officially suspended the bid hours before parliament backed a Labour motion that it was not in the public interest for it to go ahead. It is possible, however, that News Corp will make a fresh attempt once the criminal investigation into phone hacking is complete.
Mr Cameron has admitted having 26 meetings with executives from News International in the since he became Prime Minister last May. Two of these involved James Murdoch.
The Prime Minister, who has been on the back foot over phone hacking because of the hiring of Mr Coulson, has admitted that all politicians were guilty of getting too close to powerful media organisations.
A spokesman for Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, said top-slicing was discussed in 2007 when the Conservatives were in opposition, but was never formally made a policy.
“It was raised amongst a whole range of ideas, but there wasn’t much appetite from the broadcasters for the plan,” the spokesman said, adding “I’m pretty sure that Cameron didn’t talk to Jeremy about top-slicing.
“Jeremy formulated the policy that we have. He is the culture secretary. Decisions on how we formulate policy are for him. There wasn’t any need for a discussion on it.”
Last night a spokesman for News International declined to comment.
Ivan Lewis, the shadow culture secretary, said: “These allegations raise further serious questions about David Cameron’s judgment. The suggestion that Tory media policy has been driven by NewsCorp’s interests and not the public interest will send shock waves through his own party and among Lib Dem MPs.
“They will fuel suspicion that the supposed independent decision making process in relation to BSkyB was nothing but a sham.”