31 May 2012

Further embarrassment for the culture secretary

The FT has spotted another embarrasment for the culture secretary as he steps into the high court.

An email correspondence between Adam Smith, former adviser to Mr Hunt, and Fred Michel  shows Mr Smith passing on the chancellor’s decision to freeze the BBC licence fee to Fred M before it’s been shared with parliament in October 2010.

I mentioned before the baffling first reaction from No. 10 when the Fred Michel/Adam Smith emails and texts were first published.

Anyone who looked at those messages – particularly in the table published by the Leveson Inquiry which summarised how Adam Smith contacts were conveyed inside News International by Fred Michel – would’ve seen a series of contacts that were utterly inappropriate.

Those contacts would mean one or two people had to leave government service.

If Adam Smith was acting alone, they were completely unacceptable contacts and he should go. If he was acting with the knowledge of the minister they would both have to go. But Jeremy Hunt (and No. 10) didn’t sack Adam Smith the moment those email contacts were published at 4pm on the afternoon when James Murdoch gave evidence. Either they didn’t study the evidence or they had a failure of judgement.

Lord Justice Leveson knows that the session with Jeremy Hunt will be seen by many as a test of his inquiry’s credibility. It’s worth noting how the Jeremy Hunt affair has been responsible for a mighty detour for this inquiry and for it’s scratchiest moments with other authorities in the land.

Jeremy Hunt asked to appear early to clear his name and Lord Justice Leveson politely declined and stuck to his existing timetable.

The prime minister repeatedly said that he didn’t need to invoke the conventional constitutional machinery (Sir Alex Allen) to see if Jeremy Hunt had broken the minsterial code because the Leveson inquiry would do that work. Lord Justice Leveson (three times on my counting) said he would not be adjudicating on who was a proper minister and should serve in the Cabinet.

The speaker backed Labour calls to see Leveson Inquiry before Lord Justice Leveson chose to release it and Lord Justice Leveson responded: do that and I won’t pusue that part of my inquiry any more… you choose ( I paraphrase).

Some would argue that the defence of the position and autonomy of the inquiry has been more fiery than the slightly discursive questioning. The prime minister has indicated that depending on how Jeremy Hunt does today he may yet be referred to Sir Alex Allen. Jeremy Hunt is the sole witness for the day, starting from 10am.

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