Murdoch exits frying pan but can’t escape Leveson grill

Expect fireworks as James, Rupert and Rebekah Brooks line up with their nemesis Tom Watson at media inquiry

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:16 ON Wed 4 Apr 2012

JAMES MURDOCH may have jumped from BSkyB, but his feet are still going to be held to the fire at Westminster over the alleged criminal activities in News Corp companies.

James and his father Rupert are expected to be given a grilling at the inquiry into newspaper ethics by Lord Justice Leveson between now and May along with their former underling Rebekah Brooks, who was forced to resign as chief executive of News International after having her collar felt by the police.

James knew before he resigned as BSkyB chairman yesterday that he was also facing an unpleasant time later this month when the Commons Culture Media and Sport select committee reports on whether he misled Parliament over his bland denials that hacking phones to get stories was widespread among his journalists. He wrote a grovelling letter to the committee last month saying maybe he should have asked more questions of his minions - but that is unlikely to enable him to escape more criticism.

His nemesis, Tom Watson, the Labour MP and a member of the select committee, who compared the Murdochs to the Mafia to their faces, has applied to be a core participant in the next stage of the Leveson inquiry. And it should produce real fireworks. Brooks has asked to be a witness, although she is still under arrest in the parallel police inquiry. The feisty red head clearly intends to take a few shots at her persecutors if she is going down.

You cannot buy tickets for ringside seats at the inquiry but it should boost viewing figures for the live coverage by Sky News. At least James Murdoch has done that for the satellite broadcaster. And he will be in good company. Leveson is also expected to call Lord Rothermere, owner of Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers, Evgeny Lebedev, the son of the Russian proprietor of the Evening Standard, Independent and the cut-price i, and Aidan Barclay the son of media-shy Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, owners of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.

The Guardian reports today that the newspaper owners are expected to be grilled about their relationship with politicians, including David Cameron and past prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and questions will take in details of their specific meetings, correspondence and telephone calls.

Cameron, Blair and Brown will also be called before Leveson, who is expected to discuss their relationship with the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays in the runup to general elections.

Meanwhile, there will be another development in the cash-for-access saga today. Tim Bell, founder of the lobbying company, Bell Pottinger announced on Newsnight last night that Bell Pottinger will be cleared of charges of breaking the voluntary code of practice for lobbyists today - by the lobbyists' own watchdog.

It follows the undercover film of Bell Pottinger executive Tim Collins, the former Conservative MP and spin doctor, telling journalists posing as businessmen that he could speak to his Tory ministerial chums in the government simply by picking up the phone. The outcome is almost certain to lead to renewed calls for a statutory watchdog with sharper teeth.

Bell said Cameron was wrong to warn that lobbying would be the next big scandal in politics. He advised Cameron to get a grip by appointing a proper party chairman, ending the job split between Baroness Warsi and Lord Feldman. It is beginning to look like this idea has gained such currency around the Tory party that it might actually happen. Who better than Bell himself? · 

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This pic.ought to be a caption competition - my entry would be "Oh, those illegal activities!?"