Hunt in the clear, says Cameron

 

Jeremy Hunt held on to his place in the Cabinet today, after Prime Minister David Cameron decided not to order an investigation into whether he breached the ministerial code of conduct in his handling of the News Corporation bid for BSkyB.

After watching the Culture Secretary give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Mr Cameron judged that he had acted "properly" throughout the period when he was responsible for the bid, said Downing Street.

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said it was "frankly disgraceful" that Mr Hunt was not being referred to the PM's independent adviser on the code Sir Alex Allan.

Downing Street sources said the top civil servant at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens, had made clear to Lord Justice Leveson that Mr Hunt had given himself very little room for political manoeuvre by referring the BSkyB bid to independent regulators.

In taking the regulators' advice throughout the process, he took a series of decisions which were contrary to News Corp's interests.

But Ms Harman said Mr Hunt was "clearly already biased" when he was handed quasi-judicial responsibility for overseeing the BSkyB bid in December 2010.

Mr Hunt had misled Parliament about his communications with News Corp and he did not obey the legal advice he was given about intervening, said Ms Harman.

She said this meant there was "no doubt" he had broken the ministerial code.

"He broke the ministerial code, he misled Parliament, and yet David Cameron is keeping him in his Cabinet. It's absolutely disgraceful.

"All of those things mean he should not be carrying on in his job."

At the end of a six-hour grilling on his role in the takeover decision, Mr Hunt insisted there was no reason for him to quit - though he said he had considered resigning.

"I did think about my own position," he said.

"But I had conducted the bid scrupulously fairly throughout every stage and I believed it was possible to demonstrate that and I decided it wasn't appropriate for me to go."

Mr Hunt did accept however, that chatty messages he exchanged with James Murdoch while he was responsible for deciding on the BSkyB issue were, with hindsight inappropriate.

Among messages between the pair was one congratulating the media executive on a promotion to a new News Corp job in New York, in which Mr Hunt joked: "I am sure you will really miss Ofcom in NY!"

"Sadly I fear they won't see the back of me that easily! Hopefully we can move our other business forward soon," Mr Murdoch replied in an apparent reference to the takeover bid.

Mr Hunt insisted that such messages "had absolutely no impact on the process" and were "just me being courteous" but added that he would avoid such contact in similar circumstances in the future.

"I think probably now I would not take the same view and would avoid all text messages," he said.

Fresh evidence also emerged of Mr Hunt's personal involvement in the BSkyB issue shortly before he was handed quasi-judicial responsibility for it.

Text messages handed over to the inquiry showed he texted Chancellor George Osborne to express fears the Government was going to "screw up" the deal.

He contacted Mr Osborne after receiving a phone call from James Murdoch questioning the legitimacy of the process when secret recordings of Business Secretary Vince Cable "declaring war" on News Corporation emerged.

Timed at 4.08pm, Mr Hunt's message to Mr Osborne read: "Could we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? I am seriously worried we are going to screw this up. Jeremy."

He immediately sent a second, saying: "Just been called by James M. His lawyers are meeting now and saying it calls into question legitimacy of whole process from beginning. 'acute bias' etc."

A couple of minutes later, Mr Hunt sent an email to Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor at that time working as Prime Minister David Cameron's director of communications.

"Could we chat about this?", he wrote.

"I am seriously worried Vince Cable will do real damage to coalition with his comments."

At 4.58pm, with the formal appointment of Mr Hunt to take over examination of the takeover bid to be announced within the hour, the Chancellor replied by text to Mr Hunt: "I hope you like the solution."

It also emerged Mr Hunt sent a "great news" message to James Murdoch on the same day after the European Commission said the bid had cleared legal hurdles in Europe - adding "just Ofcom to go".

In a staunch defence of his ability to "set aside any views you have" in taking the quasi-judicial decisions - and insisted his actions backed that up.

"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."

He went as far as to "set up a process explicitly to make sure" that happened, he added.

Mr Hunt lavished praise on his former special adviser Adam Smith, who he had told to quit following disclosures of his close contacts with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel during the bid process, describing him as highly intelligent and able.

He suggested his aide may have "slipped into inappropriate language" because of the sheer volume of communications he was getting from Mr Michel as he sought to get him "off his back".

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Jeremy Hunt's evidence has shown that he acted properly while he was responsible for the BSkyB bid. He took independent advice at every turn, as well as a number of decisions which were against News Corporation's wishes.

"As the Permanent Secretary of the department made clear, Jeremy Hunt set up a process which left him with a 'vanishingly small' chance to 'manipulate' the bid for 'political or other ends'.

"There are some lessons to be learned from this process and that's why the Cabinet Secretary has already written to all departments regarding the way quasi-judicial decisions are taken.

"The Prime Minister will not be referring Jeremy Hunt to Sir Alex Allan."

PA

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