24 Apr 2012

Hunt ‘secretly backed’ Murdoch BSkyB bid

Jeremy Hunt comes under pressure to resign after James Murdoch tells the Leveson inquiry the culture secretary secretly supported News Corporation’s BSkyB bid and leaked information to the Murdochs.

The Murdoch empire and its “behind closed doors” relationship with Britain’s ruling classes was today prised open by the Leveson inquiry. There are now calls for Jeremy Hunt’s resignation.

At issue was the controversial bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to take full ownership of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

A series of emails from News Corp’s director of public affairs, Frederic Michel, sent to James Murdoch and other executives were read out at the hearing revealing Mr Hunt’s thoughts about the controversal takeover plans.

Mr Michel’s emails refer to “sessions” with Mr Hunt’s special adviser, alongside a “very good debrief” with the minister himself – in this instance following Ofcom’s decision to flag up the competition issues surrounding News Corp’s bid for BSkyB.

In one email Mr Michel updated News Corp on what Mr Hunt was due to say to parliament the following day, adding that it was “absolutely illegal” for him to obtain the information. Shortly before a decision was due on News Corp’s bid, another email was passed on from Mr Hunt’s office noting: “JH believes we are in a good place tonight”.

That is a decision which I am approaching with total impartiality and following strict due process. Jeremy Hunt on News Corp’s BSkyB bid, January 2011

Another email, dating from January last year, reported Mr Hunt’s belief that it would be “game over” for opponents of the BSkyB takeover once plans to spin off Sky News into a separately listed company were publicly announced.

“He said we would get there at the end, and he shared our objectives,” Mr Michel noted.

Earlier emails from Mr Michel alleged that Mr Hunt was “on side” with News Corp and BSkyB, and was “frustrated” after being warned by the Permanent Secretary not to meet Murdoch.

Conservative MP John Whittingdale, who chairs the Commons culture, media and sport committee, told Channel 4 News that Frederic Michel’s emails made clear that “in actual fact he never spoke to Jeremy Hunt”.

In terms of Jeremy Hunt’s actions, I think he behaved properly. John Whittingdale MP

He said: “I think you do need to judge Jeremy Hunt by his actions, and as I think he has already suggested, he did play it exactly according to the advice that he was given. At every stage he asked for advice from the independent regulator and then followed that advice when it was given.”

Mr Whittingdale added that “in terms of Jeremy Hunt’s actions, I think he behaved properly.”

Not long after taking over from Vince Cable as culture secretary, Mr Hunt promised political detachment in his assessment of the News Corporation bid for BSkyB.

“It is a decision about whether a specific transaction is going to affect plurality,” he told the Commons in January 2011. “And that is a decision which I am approaching with total impartiality and following strict due process.”

Shadow culture secretary, Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman, told Channel 4 News: "When you are taking responsibility for making a decision where you have to act in a quasi-judicial role, you have to make sure you act like a judge, not like a politician.

"You have to be completely stepped back from the process, and what became evident from the Leveson inquiry today was that probably Jeremy Hunt should never have taken on the decision once Vince Cable could no longer be left with the decision because he showed that he was partial in one particular direction.

I think Jeremy Hunt should have said, 'Look, I've had too much involvement in this'."

Meetings with Cameron

The revelations have led to a flurry of wagers that Mr Hunt would leave the Cabinet, and bookmakers William Hill, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power all suspended betting on him resigning.

However, David Cameron’s official spokesman told reporters that the Prime Minister continued to have full confidence in Mr Hunt following the claims.

In James Murdoch‘s first appearance at the Leveson inquiry he gave five hours of evidence. His father, Rupert Murdoch, is due to be questioned on Wednesday and Thursday.

Despite the allegations in the emails, Murdoch junior laughed at suggestions that the culture secretary was a “cheerleader” for the BSkyB bid.

James Murdoch revealed that he had briefly talked to Mr Cameron at a dinner at Brooks’ about the removal of Business Secretary Vince Cable’s powers to oversee News Corporation’s bid to take over broadcaster BSkyB.

The media mogul said he had met David Cameron 12 times while he was leader of the opposition, including four meetings also attended by Rebekah Brooks.

The press standards inquiry was told that Mr Murdoch had met Mr Cameron for drinks in September 2009 to discuss The Sun’s plans to endorse the Conservative Party at the following year’s general election.

Channel 4 News LiveBlog: Murdochs at the Leveson Inquiry

He salso poke of meeting Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague during the Tories’ time in opposition.

After Mr Cameron entered Number 10 in May 2010, Mr Murdoch and his family had lunch with him at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers in Buckinghamshire, in November 2010.

Mrs Brooks and her husband, Charlie, hosted a dinner attended by the media mogul and Mr Cameron on December 23 2010.

This was two days after Mr Cable was stripped of his responsibilities for regulating the media after he was caught on tape by undercover reporters claiming to have “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire.

Mr Cameron’s official spokesman declined to comment on Mr Murdoch’s account of his meetings with the prime minister, and his suggestion that they discussed the BSkyB bid at the December 2010 dinner.

“Everybody expects the prime minister to be called (by Leveson), and we have made clear throughout that he will attend and answer the questions that are put,” said the spokesman.