The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MR TIMOTHY COLBOURNE (affirmed).

  • Thank you, Mr Colbourne. You have given us your full name. May I invite you, please, to turn up your witness statement, which will be in the file in front of you. It is dated 17 May. It has three exhibits. Are you able to confirm this as your evidence to the inquiry?

  • This is evidence that you volunteered, rather than provided pursuant to a statutory notice; is that correct?

  • In terms of who you are, you have been a special adviser working to the Deputy Prime Minister since August 2010 and you are based in the policy and implementation unit at Number 10 Downing Street?

  • And so if we are looking at the period particularly December 2010, what, in general terms, were your responsibilities?

  • I was responsible for four government departments: the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Culture, Media and Sports, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office. I was one of five special advisers in the Number 10 policy unit and I provided advice largely to the deputy Prime Minister on those portfolios. Very occasionally, in the early months of the job, I had occasion to provide advice to the Prime Minister, although around the end of 2010, that system changed, the policy unit expanded and the lines of reporting were clarified and my advice from that point onwards was solely to the Deputy Prime Minister.

  • On 17 November 2010 -- this is page 13730, under tab 2 of the file -- you received an email from Mr Frederick Michel; is that correct?

  • Had you any contact with him before you received this email?

  • No, this came out of the blue, as it were.

  • It says, amongst other things:

    "It would be good to discuss the current agenda around the creative industry ..."

    In a nutshell, what was that agenda?

  • Two things, largely. There was a piece of work being conducted by Professor Ian Hargreaves into intellectual property and copyright, which I had some familiarity with. I had a number of conversations around that time with various parts of the media and broadcasting industries about that work.

    Secondly, the Digital Economy Act, which was a piece of legislation passed at the end of the last Labour Government's time in office and for which various pieces of secondary legislation remained to be enacted and there are ongoing discussions within government, with industry and others about legislation. So those were the two topics of interest to me.

  • We see no reference to the BskyB bid in this email. Had the BskyB bid been on the agenda, would you have agreed to see Mr Michel?

  • We know that a meeting took place on 2 December 2010. There are two pieces of evidence which relate to it. First of all, please, your note, which is under tab 3, please, of the bundle. Page 13732. First of all, can you tell us, where did the meeting take place?

  • The meeting took place in one of the rooms at Number 10, which is known as the study. It is one of the state rooms on the first floor.

  • The handwritten part which we see here, this obviously is your handwriting. May I ask you, please, when did you complete these notes?

  • They were completed during the meeting, so I wouldn't have made any further changes to them afterwards.

  • Thank you. The note itself is self-explanatory. There is reference to the creative industry agenda but then it moved off to BskyB. Were you surprised when Mr Michel started to debate those matters?

  • I wasn't entirely surprised that he would take the opportunity, given that we were sitting in a room together, to try to pick my brains. If I recall correctly, he asked if I was aware of what was going on with the bids. I explained that I had no part in it and I knew absolutely nothing about the progress of the bid. He then asked whether I was aware of the stages in the process that were expected to come over the following months.

    As I was pretty sketchy about where those milestones lay and I decided it would be useful to understand the contours of the process, if not the content of the process, we then had a discussion around when those milestones were to be expected.

  • There is reference to Ofcom's role, looking at plurality not at competition. That is correct:

    "Brussels looks at competition. Ofcom report to News Corp with questions. Ofcom report to Vince. Vince decides whether to go to the Competition Commission."

    Can I ask you, please, to compare your notes with the email in KLM18. This is under your tab 10. It is in the PROP file at page 01677. Do you have that to hand?

  • You are referred to there as "Nick's adviser". The first three bullet points, are those, broadly speaking, correct or not?

  • Those are correct. So the meeting was an introductory meeting with a representative of industry who I hadn't met previously and I had, at this time, a number of introductory meetings with other bodies in the creative industries. That is, for example, with the BBC, with ITV, with some of the American networks. The purpose of these introductory meetings was first and foremost to set out the nature of the work which that particular body conducts and so there was a presentation in broad terms of what News Corporation does and what the range of its business interests are.

  • Thank you. There is one point, which is the fourth point, which is in bold type:

    "Honest discussion on the importance for us of getting Labour on board/comfortable with the transaction as it will influence Cable a lot."

    Can you help us, please, as to whether that is accurate?

  • I have no recollection of that discussion. It is possible that Fred Michel mentioned the Labour Party during the conversation. What strikes me about the way in which this is phrased is there is a, to my mind, implication here that I was offering strategic advice to News Corp for the furtherance of their bid, which was, at that time, in progress, and that I was offering that advice with the implication that Vince Cable would be receptive if they took one stance or another in relation to the Labour Party.

    That I completely reject. I would not have offered advice in those terms. I have to say, I have no particular insight into the thoughts and workings of the Labour Party on this and most other matters, but in this case, I suspect that a passing reference has been over-interpreted and exaggerated in Mr Michel's record and it doesn't reflect the conversation which took place.

    The notes which I took of the meeting, the contemporaneous notes, don't make reference to this point, and as I say, I have no specific recollection of it being discussed.

  • Might Mr Michel have said something along the lines that it was important for News Corp to get Labour on board?

  • Quite possibly, and if that was said, I imagine I would have politely acknowledged it.

  • The fifth point:

    "He [that is you] will insist on the need for Vince to meet with us once Ofcom report published."

    Is that accurate or not?

  • That is not accurate. I have a distant memory, bearing in mind this was a half hour meeting 18 months ago. I have a distant recollection that there was a discussion of a desire by Mr Michel to organise a meeting with Mr Cable after the Ofcom reports had been published. I was not in any position to facilitate that meeting, nor would I have offered to do so, nor would I have said that I insist that Mr Cable held such a meeting.

    For the record, I don't think that it is the role of specialises to insist that ministers should meet with people they are not inclined to meet.

  • You weren't, of course, Dr Cable's adviser in any event, were you?

  • No, nor was his department one of the departments for which I had responsibility.

  • If I just touch very briefly, then, on the sixth point. This is the creative industry's issue again, I think. Is that right, Mr Colbourne? Might this be accurate, or not?

  • This undoubtedly refers to the discussion which we did have about the Digital Economy Act. As I explained earlier, there were various pieces of secondary legislation which flow from that Act. It may be that at the time there was an intention to bring something forward and we discussed the handling of that, but in the event, I don't think any such announcement was made, in January or at any other time. So whether Mr Michel has understood the nature of the conversation or not, I am not sure. These matters are still under discussion within government at the moment.

  • Is it standard practice for special advisers to make contemporaneous notes of meetings?

  • It is not something which we are advised on one way or another. I was struck, coming into government, that there is a very strong culture amongst the Civil Service of note-taking and the paper trail is, as it were, the lifeblood of the Civil Service, and the way that it does business, the way in which decisions are minuted and arrived at. There is no such expectation of special advisers. Some do take notes and others are not in the practice of taking notes on a regular basis.

  • There may be an issue there. I am sure you are aware of the concern that the Inquiry has heard about and discussed, about precisely what assistance special advisers should be given in connection with taking on what are, after all, brand new duties.

  • Personally, I think the level of advice and guidance which is given to special advisers is minimal, that a lot could be done to improve it. I recall that when I was employed I was given a copy of the code of conduct, special advisers, together with my contract but there was no more detailed guidance.

    On this specific point, I keep notes for my own personal benefit, as an aide-memoire. But I think it is also good practice if only to keep a short list of bullet points, so that it is clear to any third party who might have reason subsequently to ask about the nature of the meeting what exactly was under discussion.

  • As would now transpire, one of the things about this note, which is not a million miles from a concern, is that on the one hand you are doing something for them -- this is the note, not you. I understand your evidence. You are going to insist on this. On the other, they want to do something for you, namely to support the Deputy Prime Minister, and that suggests something which creates an impression which I'm sure you would say simply is not right, in light of what you said.

  • No, I don't recognise that at all, and there was no discussion of a deal and there was no undertaking to carry out particular actions pursuant to the meeting. One of the things that I do -- and again, it is a personal note-taking habit -- is I scrupulously record action points with an asterisk in my notes. There were no action points recorded for this meeting and I had no discussions with either Vince Cable's department or anyone else about it afterwards.

  • The only upshot of the meeting is the email at tab 4 from Mr Michel to you, 7 December, page 13734, which makes no reference to anything apart from assisting the reform process as much as possible in your respective sectors, I paraphrase.

  • This was a typically warm communication from Mr Michel to follow up on the meeting. He indicates in it that he expects there to be future contacts. In the event, there was no such future contact.

  • Yes, well, events changed a couple of weeks after that email, but I think we can leave it there.

  • Mr Colbourne, thank you very much. I am grateful to you for providing that piece to the jigsaw. Thank you.

  • (The witness withdrew from the witness box)

  • Sir, the next witness is Mr Giles Crown.

  • Thank you very much indeed.