Jeremy Hunt and Tony Blair to appear at Leveson Inquiry next week

 

Beleaguered Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will appear before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards on Thursday next week, it was announced today.

Mr Hunt will face a grilling over his office's links with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation during its bid to take over the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, and he will be challenged over whether his public expressions of support for the bid were compatible with the quasi-judicial role he was given by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Also giving evidence in one of the most crucial weeks of the inquiry will be Business Secretary Vince Cable, who was stripped of the role of deciding whether the bid could proceed last December after he was secretly recorded saying he had "declared war" on Mr Murdoch.

Former prime minister Tony Blair will face questions on Monday, when he is likely to be asked about the extent and nature of the government's links with the Murdoch press during Labour's 13 years in power.

Mr Hunt had asked for his appearance before the inquiry to be brought forward so he could give his side of the story as soon as possible, but was rebuffed by Lord Justice Leveson.

The inquiry has been presented with a cache of emails showing that News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel received inside information about the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's handling of the bid from Mr Hunt's former special adviser Adam Smith, who quit last month after admitting he went too far in acting as a point of contact with the company.

Yesterday, the inquiry published a memo sent by the Culture Secretary to Mr Cameron in November 2010, weeks before he took on the quasi-judicial role, in which he appeared to be making the case for News Corp's bid to go ahead.

Mr Hunt insists that he oversaw the process "with scrupulous fairness throughout" and has received strong backing from the Prime Minister.

But Mr Cameron has also said that if anything arises from the inquiry that suggests the ministerial code might have been breached, he will call in his independent ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan or take immediate action himself.

A decision on whether Sir Alex should investigate the Culture Secretary's behaviour is expected shortly after Mr Hunt gives evidence.

Mr Cable is likely to face questions on Wednesday next week over whether he approached the BSkyB bid with a pre-conceived hostility towards News Corp.

Also giving evidence next week will be Education Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May on Tuesday and Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke on Wednesday.

Mr Blair will expect questions over whether he allowed his relationship with Mr Murdoch and News International to become too close, as his former lieutenant Lord Mandelson told the inquiry on Monday.

Lord Mandelson said it was "arguably the case... that personal relationships between Mr Blair, (Gordon) Brown and Rupert Murdoch became closer than was wise", but denied there was any "Faustian pact" involving commercial concessions for News Corp in return for its newspapers supporting Labour.

Mr Blair famously flew to Hayman Island in Australia to address News Corp executives in 1995, as part of a Labour strategy to gain a hearing with newspapers which had savaged previous leaders Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

And it emerged last year that he formed a close enough relationship with Mr Murdoch to become the godfather to one of the media tycoon's children in 2010.

Mr Gove, a former journalist on the News Corp-owned Times whose wife is a writer on the paper, is likely to be questioned about the frequency of his meetings with the company's executives, including Rupert Murdoch, his son James and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks.

The Education Secretary last year recorded 11 meetings with senior News Corp figures between the May 2010 general election and July 2011 and has publicly described Rupert Murdoch as "a great man" and "a force of nature".

Earlier this year, he spoke out about the danger of freedom of speech being harmed by the "chilling atmosphere" created by the Leveson Inquiry.

Questioning the need for additional regulation of the Press, he cautioned against allowing "judges, celebrities and the establishment" to become the arbiters of where the limits of free speech should be set.

Mrs May will probably be asked about the police handling of phone-hacking allegations and the issue of the closeness between the police and the media.

PA

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