Rupert Murdoch invited Boris Johnson to a private dinner at his Mayfair home on a recent visit by the tycoon to London, the latest sign of growing intimacy between the media mogul recovering from the phone-hacking storm and the mayor of London – seen as a long-term rival to David Cameron.
Damian Lewis, the star of Homeland made by Murdoch's fox21 production outfit, was also present on Tuesday night. An Old Etonian like Johnson, the actor, who plays a former soldier held captive by al-Qaida, added the allure of Hollywood to the proceedings, which were also attended by London-based Murdoch editors and executives.
It is at least the second time in six months that Murdoch has met the mayor and indicates that the mogul is as keen as ever on nurturing his political contacts in the UK, despite heavy criticism during the Leveson inquiry over his close relations with a succession of prime ministers and back-door visits to Downing Street.
News International said it would not comment on who Murdoch had or had not met, but informed sources confirmed that the dinner took place, and who was present. A spokesman for the mayor said he could not confirm the dinner meeting as it was not policy to comment on his "private arrangements".
Johnson also has ultimate, but not operational, responsibilty for the Metropolitan Police, the force investigating phone hacking by Murdoch's News of the World and alleged corrupt payments made by Sun journalists. Last week, the paper's defence editor, Virginia Wheeler, was charged with causing misconduct in public office, with prosecutors claiming she paid a Met police officer £6,450 for sensitive information.
The mayor's choice of supper partners was criticised by Labour. Len Duvall, leader of the Labour group at the London Assembly, said: "This isn't the first time Boris has met privately with Rupert Murdoch and tried to keep it secret. There are still unanswered questions over his meetings with Murdoch at the time of the police investigations around the phone-hacking scandal.
"It is ludicrous for him to say he was meeting him in a private capacity. He is the mayor of London and has a duty to uphold the highest standards. Does he really think meeting for a private dinner with Rupert Murdoch is a normal meeting? What planet does he live on?"
Last August, Johnson, a former journalist who still writes a column for the rival Daily Telegraph, invited Murdoch and his wife Wendi Deng as his personal guests to the Olympics to watch Rebecca Adlington defend her 800m swimming gold as part of his "schmoozathon" to promote London. Friends of Murdoch, who is said to have gone cold on Cameron, said he was impressed by Johnson's ability to put London on the map.
In the past year the Sun, which Murdoch told Leveson reflects his thinking on politics in Britain, had been giving Johnson enthusiastic backing, celebrating his maverick style and "game for a laugh" attitude. Johnson was also one of a number of politicians who wrote for the Sun following the Leveson report, to urge the government against any statutory control of the press, something Murdoch vehemently opposes.
Despite Cameron's attempts to rein in the maverick mayor, Johnson remains an ever-present threat. His popularity last year had increased to a point where Johnson was greeted with the kind of attention reserved for a Hollywood celebrity or rock star when he arrived at the Conservative party conference, with crowds chanting his name.
On Friday, the mayor strayed into government territory, calling on the chancellor George Osborne to drop his "hairshirt, Stafford Cripps" agenda as he outlined a seven-point growth plan for London involving thousands of new homes and investment in major infrastructure projects. Cripps, the chancellor between 1947 and 1950, used taxes and rationing to limit consumption as the UK tried to rebuild its postwar economy.
Duvall called for "full transparency" and said London deserved to know what newspaper proprietors he was meeting. "If there's nothing to hide why won't he tell us?" he said.
Chris Bryant, a Labour MP who has pursued News International in the Commons, said: "There is something decidedly unseemly about Boris Johnson's relationship with the Murdoch empire.
"He did their bidding by trying to have the new police investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World suspended by calling it 'politically motivated codswallop'. Now he is attempting to win their support for when his leadership bid commences."
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