25 Apr 2012

Jeremy Hunt: tone of News Corp emails ‘not appropriate’

Following the publication of emails between the culture secretary’s office and News Corp, Jeremy Hunt tells MPs of his “huge regret” after the resignation of his special adviser Adam Smith.

The culture secretary told the Commons that the “volume and tone” of the emails between Mr Smith and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which emerged at the Leveson inquiry on Tuesday, were “clearly not appropriate in a quasi-judicial process”.

Mr Hunt had ministerial responsibility for News Corp’s proposed takeover of BSkyB before the company withdrew its offer amid the row over phone hacking at the News of the World. He was given responsibility after Business Secretary Vince Cable was secretly recorded saying he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch.

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Education Secretary Michael Gove denied claims that Mr Hunt tried to ease the path of any takeover, saying: “On four separate occasions, when Jeremy could have made the path for News Corporation smoother, he made it more difficult. There is no evidence that Jeremy has followed anything other than the proper advice, the proper procedures.”

Mr Hunt said Mr Smith’s resignation was a matter of “huge regret”, but he considered him to be a man of “integrity and decency” who had believed he was doing “no more than giving advice on process”.

Mr Smith resigned on Wednesday morning after admitting his contacts with News Corp “went too far”. He said his relations with News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel had given the impression there was “too close a relationship”.

The reality is, you weren’t judging this bid, you were backing this bid and so you should resign. Harriet Harman, Shadow culture secretary

Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman accused Mr Hunt of backing News Corp’s takeover bid, rather than judging it. She told the Commons: “This was a controversial bid. You could have refused to take it on, but you didn’t. You could have referred it to the Competition Commission, but you didn’t.

“Your role was to be impartial, but you weren’t. Your conduct should have been quasi-judicial, but it fell far, far short of that and short of the standards required by your office. The reality is, you weren’t judging this bid, you were backing this bid and so you should resign.”

In a statement, Mr Smith insisted the “content and extent” of his contact with Mr Michel had not been authorised by Mr Hunt, saying he understood that “my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department, contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary that this needed to be a fair and scrupulous process”.

‘Consolidation of ownership’

Scrutiny of Mr Hunt comes as opposition leaders in Scotland united to demand First Minister Alex Salmond make a statement to Holyrood about his relationship with the Murdoch media empire.

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all insisted there were questions Mr Salmond needed to answer over whether he had been prepared to intervene and lobby Jeremy Hunt on the proposed takeover of BSkyB.

The outcry came after an email from a senior figure at News Corporation suggested Mr Salmond would call Mr Hunt “whenever we need him to”.

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Mr Salmond said: “What News Corporation said to me was that a consolidation ownership of BSkyB would lead to more jobs and more investment in their Scottish operations in Dunfermline and Livingston – I thought that was a good idea.”

He denied he would offer to lobby on the Murdochs’ behalf in return for the investment , saying he “offered to put forward what was best for the interests of Scotland.”