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Cameron and Hunt let off lightly with conflict of interest warning

Former Culture Secretary criticised for relationship ‘too close with press’ over role in failed BSkyB deal

The Cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt was today criticised by Lord Justice Leveson for his role in the ill-fated takeover of BSkyB by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, as part of an indictment of the overly-cosy relationship between politicians and the press.

The judge said the development of excessively close links between newspapers and politicians had undermined confidence in the political system by raising the suspicion in the public’s mind that power and influence were being traded behind the scenes at Westminster.

But beyond condemnation of the “disproportionate” amount time spent by politicians spent with newspaper editors and proprietors, Lord Justice Leveson did not place blame for the disintegration of trust in public life on the shoulders of individual ministers. He said, although Prime Minister David Cameron had – like other party leaders – gone to “great lengths” to woo Mr Murdoch’s News International empire, he believed there was no “deal”  to receive support from its titles in return for political or policy favours.

The judge said: “Over the last 30-35 years and probably much longer, the political parties... have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest. In part, this has simply been a  matter of spending a disproportionate amount of time, attention and resource on this relationship.”

All personal or private meetings between media executives and ministers must now be logged, he urged, and a public summary of all non-verbal contact, such as texts and emails, also published. The 358 pages of the report dedicated to the relationship between the press and those in power include a raft of other measures aimed at increasing transparency.

Lord Justice Leveson said the risk of the public perceiving bias and secret dealings between politicians and the press was encapsulated in numerous incidents, including the failed £8bn bid by the Murdoch empire for control of BSkyB.

Mr Hunt, the then Culture Secretary,  was criticised for failing to supervise his special adviser, Adam Smith, whose extensive contact with News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel during the takeover provided some of the most incendiary testimony of the Leveson Inquiry, by showing the Mur-doch empire was being given an inside track on the progress of its bid.

Through dozens of emails and texts exchanged between Mr Smith and Mr Michel, the inquiry was told confidential and market-sensitive information was passed from the office of Mr Hunt, who was in charge of the deciding on the bid’s progress by acting in a “quasi-judicial” role, to senior News Corp figures, including James Murdoch.

Mr Hunt insisted his previously expressed support for the BSkyB bid and links with the Murdochs, which included a number of meetings in New York in 2009 before launching the takeover, was set aside when he took over responsibility for it in 2010.

Nonetheless, Lord Justice Leveson found there had been a “serious hidden problem” in the back channel that emerged between Mr Smith and Mr Michel, leading the lobbyist to boast to James Murdoch that he had “absolutely illegal” information about the timetable for an announcement by Mr Hunt in January last year. Mr Murdoch, who said the “illegal” reference had been a joke, did not call a halt to, or question, the contacts between Mr Smith and Mr Michel – a decision the judge described as “regrettable”.

He said the nature and volume of the exchanges over many months between the special adviser and the lobbyist was such that, had the BSkyB bid gone through, the arrangement had the potential to derail the entire takeover. The risks posed by Mr Smith’s arrangement with Mr Michel should been “obvious from the outset” to officials and ministers, including Mr Hunt, Lord Justice Leveson said.

Criticising Mr Hunt for his failure to spot this conflict as well as the necessity of paying “meticulous attention” to every aspect of ministerial procedure, Lord Justice Leveson said: “I doubt the wisdom of appointing Mr Smith to this role. The cumulative risks were then compounded... by a lack of supervision by Mr Hunt.”

The judge said there was “no credible evidence” that Mr Hunt, who said he considered resigning over the handling of the BSkyB bid, showed any bias. However, Lord Justice Leveson added: “The voluminous exchanges between Mr Michel and Mr Smith, in the circumstances, give rise to a perception of bias. The fact that they were conducted informally, and off the departmental record, are an additional cause for concern.”

Leveson report: Politicians

The recommendations

1. Each major political party to publish a statement explaining how it intends to conduct relations with the press

2. Senior politicians to declare any long-term relationships with media proprietors, executives and journalists as well as quarterly reports of all meetings, including previously private “personal” meetings with all media executives.

3. Quarterly reports to include a “general estimate” of the frequency of letters, phone calls, texts and emails between politicians and senior media figures.