31 May 2012

Hunt, Murdoch and the day Vince lost his powers

As billed, Jeremy Hunt is emphasising the extra and unpopular references and burdens he was willing to put on News Corp over their bid for all of BSkyB.¬†He quotes James Murdoch saying they were “tantamount to killing the deal.”

But the real interest so far will be the text exchanges on the day Vince Cable’s sting by the Telegraph was fully disclosed.

You get a good flavour of life in Whitehall that hairy day, as Vince Cable lost his powers over the BSkyB bid. Jeremy Hunt is sending supportive texts to James Murdoch only a very short while before the Vince Cable saga bursts on to the news – “congrats on Brussels. Only Ofcom to go.”

Straight after the Cable story breaks, Jeremy Hunt is quickly in contact with James Murdoch again who is complaining of acute bias against News Corp and is “totally horrified” by Dr Cable’s secretly recorded attacks. Mr Hunt is then promptly conveying the Murdoch anger to George Osborne by text.

The chancellor, as ever at the centre of major government decisions, seems to be at the heart of the mini-reshuffle of responsibilities from Vince Cable to Jeremy Hunt. George Osborne texts Jeremy Hunt: “Hope you like the solution!” There’s bound to be speculation that this is code for “at last there’s a pro-Murdoch man in charge of this.”

On a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that DCMS is seen in many parts of Whitehall as a department without a purpose and sometimes eyed as ideal for culling. If it weren’t for the need to have a certain number of balancing ministers round the coalition Cabinet table (and David Cameron’s phobia of Whitehall furniture shifting), a cull of DCMS and DECC might have got serious traction.

In this context,  gaining a big, grown-up bit of Whitehall business like the power over the BSkyB bid would also be a boost to a relatively puny empire, regardless of what the chancellor and the culture secretary might think of the Murdoch empire.

Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that he hadn’t given a specific clear brief to Adam Smith before he started liaising with Fred Michel on the BSkyB bid. Some might see that as a failure under the ministerial code. Mr Hunt said Mr Smith would’ve heard all the civil service briefings about how a quasi-judicial process should work and he’d expected him to pick up on all that.

It all raises questions about whether Jeremy Hunt shouldve been more open about his support for the Murdoch case before taking on the job of judging it and whether David Cameron shouldve been a little more hesitant in giving the portfolio to Mr Hunt.

Looking around here at Leveson, I estimate 17 paid lawyers sitting in various sections of Court 73. I see that Lord Justice Leveson has an instant messenger link up to Jay’s screen which you can see him tap “break” reminders into and no doubt other messages occasionally too.

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