31 May 2012

Hunt’s sympathy for ‘pushy’ News Corp

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gives the Leveson inquiry into media ethics an insight into the level of pressure exerted on his department by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Mr Hunt acknowledged that he had been “broadly sympathetic” towards News Corp’s bid to acquire a majority share in broadcaster BSkyB before being given responsibility for overseeing the takeover.

But he insisted he had “set aside” those feelings once he had been given that role – in the face of “pushiness” from the Murdoch organisation.

As the inquiry pored over a series of texts and emails from the culture secretary, expressing concern that the government was going to “screw up” the takeover bid, Mr Hunt admitted he was “broadly sympathetic – I hesitate to say supportive”.

Cable’s ‘war’ on Murdoch

But he defended the way he conducted business once he was handed the role of overseeing media competition issues by Prime Minister David Cameron after Business Secretary Vince Cable was relieved of the role following revelations that he had been recorded saying he had “declared war” on News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch.

He said: “My suitability for the role is demonstrated by the actions I took when I did take responsibility for the role because I believe I did totally set aside all those sympathies.”

The inquiry heard that Mr Hunt had sent a text message to News Corp chief executive James Murdoch just hours before he was given responsibility for media policy and competition.

Referring to the news that the European Commission would not oppose the bid, he texted: “Great news on Brussels, just Ofcom to go.”

Mr Hunt acknowledged to the inquiry that the text – sent at about 1pm on 21 December 2010 – represented a “somewhat positive view” of the takeover situation.

But he said he would not have sent such a message once he had assumed responsibility for media competition matters, of which the BSkyB bid was the most high profile.

The “great news” message was one of a number sent by Mr Hunt to Mr Murdoch, the inquiry heard.

Some of them were in the immediate aftermath of the public release of Mr Cable’s comments, recorded by undercover journalists.

They included a text to chancellor George Osborne, saying: “Could we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? I am seriously worried we are going to screw this up.”

It was followed by a second, saying that Mr Murdoch had just told him his lawyers were meeting, questioning the legitimacy of the government process in the light of Mr Cable’s apparent bias.

‘I hope you like the solution’

The inquiry also saw an email, sent by Mr Hunt to Mr Cameron’s director of communications, Andy Coulson, saying: “I am seriously worried Vince Cable will do real damage to [the] coalition with his comments.”

And less than an hour before Downing Street announced that Mr Hunt was taking over Mr Cable’s role, Mr Osborne texted him, saying: “I hope you like the solution.”

Mr Hunt had asked for his appearance before Leveson to be brought forward after texts and emails were released revealing substantial direct contact between his special adviser, Adam Smith, and News Corporation’s public affairs head in Europe, Fred Michel.

The culture secretary said Mr Smith was considered an appropriate person to act as a point of contact with News Corp, but he admitted that volume and nature of Mr Michel’s contact with Mr Smith suggested “a degree of pushiness”.

He said Mr Michel’s text communications were “actually a little bit cheeky”.

He added: “Flattery is a weapon that Mr Michel tries to deploy quite frequently.” But he said he got used to it and effectively learned to ignore it.

He praised Mr Smith as “the most decent, straight, honourable person”.

But he added: “Even he couldn’t maintain impartiality due to the volume of contact.”