Hunt 'urged PM over BSkyB decision'

 

Jeremy Hunt made private representations to the Prime Minister supporting the BSkyB bid before he was given responsibility for deciding the issue, it was revealed tonight.

Live blog as it happened: Leveson Inquiry - Frederic Michel and Adam Smith give evidence

The Culture Secretary warned that James Murdoch was "furious" about Business Secretary Vince Cable's handling of the matter in a private briefing to David Cameron.

The document, dated November 19 2010, expressed concerns that referring the bid to Ofcom could leave the government "on the wrong side of media policy".

The dramatic disclosure came as Mr Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry.

Mr Smith, who quit last month after admitting his contacts with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel had got too close, insisted he had not been given any specific instructions by Mr Hunt or civil servants on his role in the quasi-judicial decision on BSkyB.

He said he had assumed he should be "managing relationships" with interested parties - but conceded that his only communications were with News Corp.

Mr Hunt's briefing note to the Prime Minister was prepared barely a month before the Culture Secretary was put in charge of the BSkyB decision, after Mr Cable was caught out voicing his opposition to the bid in a newspaper sting.

Mr Hunt, who had spoken to James Murdoch on the telephone a few days earlier, wrote in a "fortnightly update" for the premier: "James Murdoch is pretty furious at Vince's referral to Ofcom. He does not think he will get a fair hearing from Ofcom.

"I am particularly concerned about this because News Corp are very litigious and we could end up in the wrong place in terms of media policy.

"Essentially what James Murdoch wants to do is repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world's first multi-platform media operation available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad.

"Isn't that what all media companies have to do ultimately? If so, we must be very careful that any attempt to block it must be done on genuine plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors."

Mr Hunt went on: "The UK has the chance to lead the way on this as we did in the '80s with the Wapping move, but if we block it, our media sector will suffer for years.

"In the end I am sure sensible controls can be put into any merger to ensure there is plurality.

"But I think it would be totally wrong to cave in to the Mark Thompson/C4/Guardian line that this represents a change of control given that we all know Sky is controlled by News Corp now anyway.

"What next? Ofcom will issue their report saying whether it needs to go to the Competition Commission by December 31.

"It would be totally wrong for the Government to get involved in a competition issue, which has to be decided at arms length.

"However, I do think you, I, Vince and the DPM should meet to discuss the policy issues that are thrown up as a result."

Asked about the briefing note by counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay QC, Mr Smith insisted it was "very similar to what (Mr Hunt) had said previously, that he didn't see any particular problem with it".

Mr Smith said he did not know of any meeting that followed the missive, a draft of which was emailed to him by Mr Hunt.

The inquiry heard that Mr Hunt had been advised by the Culture Department's legal director that, while it would be within the law to make representations directly to Mr Cable on the BSkyB issue, "it would be unwise to do so".

Mr Hunt had signalled immediately after taking over from Mr Cable that he wanted to be "more open" than before, and fair to "everyone including News Corp".

Asked if the feeling was that Mr Cable had been unfair to News Corp, Mr Smith replied: "I think that was the view, yes."

Questioned on whether he was given specific instructions about his role in handling the News Corp bid, Mr Smith replied: "I wasn't told I couldn't do anything in particular. Because it was Mr Hunt's decision, the discussion was more about what he could or couldn't do. I don't remember being told about myself."

He added: "There was no direct instruction, if you like, no."

Mr Smith said he had perceived his role as "managing relationships with interested parties" and "one of the points of contact for News Corp, to act as a buffer, and as a channel of communication".

He said he did not remember Mr Hunt or civil servants telling him he was a "point of contact" with News Corp, although he added that it "would not have surprised" anyone in the department.

Pressed on whether he had communicated with parties opposed to the bid, Mr Smith replied: "I don't remember them getting in touch with me, no."

Referring to his personal views about the BSkyB bid, Mr Smith said: "I didn't, to be honest with you, particularly mind either way whether it happened or not.

"In a funny sort of way, I couldn't quite see why everyone was getting quite so worked up about it."

Earlier, the inquiry heard that Mr Michel exchanged more than 1,000 phone calls, emails and texts with Mr Hunt and his team during News Corp's BSkyB takeover bid.

The lobbyist suggested that the Culture Secretary knew Mr Smith was feeding him details of the Government's thinking about the proposals.

Mr Michel, News Corp's former director of public affairs in Europe, swapped warm text messages with Mr Hunt criticising BBC Director-General Mark Thompson, discussing their children and joking about tennis.

But he insisted he never had "inappropriate" contact with the Culture Secretary or his officials while campaigning for the BSkyB takeover to be approved.

The lobbyist exchanged 191 telephone calls, 158 emails and 799 texts with Mr Hunt's team between June 2010, when News Corp announced its bid, and July last year, when it abandoned the plan amid outrage over the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

Of these, more than 90% were exchanged with Mr Smith, who himself sent 257 text messages to Mr Michel between November 2010 and July last year.

Asked if he thought the information he received from Mr Smith reflected Mr Hunt's position, Mr Michel said: "I would have to assume that special advisers, and there are not many around the Secretary of State - there were two in that case - always represent the view of their boss.

"There are two or three events where I probably had the impression that some of the feedback I was being given had been discussed with the Secretary of State before it was given to me."

In one case Mr Michel emailed Mr Smith in October 2010 with a News Corp briefing memo for Mr Hunt on the BSkyB issues. The special adviser responded: "Jeremy's response to this - 'persuasive'."

Mr Michel and Mr Hunt, whose wives both gave birth at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in late May 2010, exchanged a series of friendly and jokey text messages during this period, the inquiry heard.

The lobbyist sent a text to the Culture Secretary on August 27 2010 in which he suggested that Mr Thompson had used a speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival to "whip up fears about Sky's success".

Mr Hunt replied: "Because he trains his guns on you, he failed to make his case to me."

After a formal meeting about the bid between Mr Hunt and News Corp officials on January 20 last year, Mr Michel wrote to the Culture Secretary: "Great to see you today. We should get little (the names of their children) together in the future to socialise! Nearly born on the same day at the same place. Warm regards. Fred."

The Culture Secretary responded just before midnight: "Good to see you too. Hope you understand why we have to have the long process. Let's meet up when things are resolved. J."

On March 3 last year, Mr Hunt announced he was minded to wave through the BSkyB takeover after News Corp offered to spin off Sky News as part of the deal.

The lobbyist wrote to him afterwards: "You were great at the Commons today. Hope all well. Warm regards, Fred."

The Culture Secretary replied: "Merci. Large drink tonight!"

On other occasions Mr Michel told Mr Hunt he was "very good... as always" when he appeared on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning programme on BBC1, and joked about backing Rafael Nadal against Andy Murray at Wimbledon.

Mr Michel admitted he was a "compulsive texter" but denied his messages to Mr Hunt were "a form of schmoozing".

The lobbyist denied accusations that he "puffed up" his contacts with the Culture Secretary's team to please Rupert and James Murdoch.

He wrote a series of emails to News Corp executives, including James Murdoch, quoting the views of "JH", but said this was shorthand and was based on conversations with Mr Smith rather than Mr Hunt himself.

Mr Michel told the inquiry: "I think my emails, as they were internal emails, were an accurate account of the conversations I have had."

"Whether there was any exaggeration or spin, it depends. I would say perhaps during the period of when we were dealing with BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), the morale was quite low because we had not much success on representation of this.

"Maybe I was trying to keep the morale up internally."

The public affairs director was asked about an email, dated January 24 last year, in which he said he had obtained "absolutely illegal" information about what Mr Hunt would tell Parliament the next day.

Mr Michel said this comment was a "very bad joke", adding: "I think it was out of my surprise to get a briefing on the content of the statement at such an early stage. In hindsight, which is always a good thing, I wouldn't have used such words."

The inquiry, held at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, was adjourned until tomorrow, when Mr Smith will complete his evidence and Department for Culture, Media and Sport Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens will appear.

Live blog as it happened: Leveson Inquiry - Frederic Michel and Adam Smith give evidence

PA

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Social Media Director (Global) - London Bridge/Southwark

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Social Media Director (Gl...

Personal and Legal Assistant – Media and Entertainment

£28,000 - £31,000: Sauce Recruitment: A Global media business based in West Lo...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice