Text messages reveal Hunt had direct contact with News Corp lobbyist
Minister fights for political survival
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Thursday 26 April 2012
A dossier detailing the involvement of the Office of Fair Trading in the £8bn BSkyB bid has been handed to the Leveson Inquiry, following revelations about how Jeremy Hunt's office leaked sensitive information to News Corp throughout the deal.
The dossier, which was submitted to the inquiry by lawyers acting for News Corp, is understood to include emails and correspondence relating to the OFT's scrutiny of assurances offered by Rupert Murdoch's media empire in its failed takeover of BSkyB. The watchdog is one of several regulators examining the handling of the buy-up.
It also emerged yesterday that:
* Mr Hunt, the Culture Secretary, spent five days in the US holding meetings with News Corp at the same time that Rupert and James Murdoch were deciding whether to bid for BSkyB.
* Downing Street may have failed to declare five occasions where Mr Cameron met Rupert Murdoch at social events, according to entries in Rupert Murdoch's diaries seen by The Daily Telegraph. The Labour MP Chris Bryant suggested in Parliament that written evidence from Mr Murdoch, due to be published today, could be problematic for the Prime Minister.
* Mr Hunt exchanged text messages with the News Corp lobbyist Fréd Michel while adjudicating on the bid. One said: "Hopefully when consultation over we can have a coffee like the old days!"
* Adam Smith, Mr Hunt's adviser, communicated with Mr Michel via a private email account that could not be read by civil servants responsible for ensuring the probity of communications. The disclosure appears to contradict Mr Hunt's statement to Parliament that Mr Smith was not operating a "back channel" to the company.
The involvement of the FSA, which is understood to be concerned that emails to News Corp from Mr Smith contained financially sensitive information, will be a major concern for the Government. It is understood to be looking at emails suggesting that Mr Michel was given advance details in January last year of an announcement that the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, had significant concerns and wanted a further investigation of the bid by the Competition Commission.
On the eve of the announcement planned for 25 January, Mr Michel emailed News Corp's presumed heir, James Murdoch, saying: "Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal)". Downing Street tried to close down demands for an official investigation on whether Mr Hunt had broken the Ministerial Code by insisting it did not want to prejudice Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry. It said Mr Hunt would set out his account of events at the inquiry and it would be up to Lord Justice Leveson to determine if he had acted appropriately. But Labour said it was "entirely wrong" to delegate responsibility for upholding ministerial standards to Lord Justice Leveson and demanded an urgent inquiry by Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister's independent adviser on the code. Mr Smith attempted to shield Mr Hunt from the fall-out over the affair by resigning and insisting the "content and extent" of his contact with News Corp had not been authorised.
Shortly after, Mr Hunt told the Commons it was "categorically not the case" that the emails were evidence that a back channel existed for News Corp to influence his decision. In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on Tuesday, James Murdoch said he assumed the email reference to "absolutely illegal" was a joke. But the revelation that Ofcom felt the proposed takeover could harm media plurality was information that could have an effect on the share prices of BSkyB and News Corp – and had seemingly been passed to the Murdoch empire while markets were still open.
The FSA declined to comment. But the apparent leaking of the information from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) could spark an inquiry.
The News Corp internal emails also suggest that in February last year Mr Hunt's office asked Jon Zeff, the official in charge of broadcasting policy at the DCMS, to ask the OFT to "ignore" one of a package of undertakings made by News Corp. On 18 February 2011, Mr Michel emailed senior executives to say Mr Hunt or an adviser would tell Mr Zeff to ask the OFT to drop an undertaking.
In a statement, the OFT said: "‘During this process, the OFT acted within the remit set out by the Secretary of State, and at all times did so in an independent manner, and based its advice on its own detailed investigation and analysis.’
The DCMS said yesterday that Mr Hunt would respond to all allegations about his conduct and that of his department when appears before the Leveson Inquiry.
Telling words: The text messages
Texts sent from Jeremy Hunt to Frédéric Michel...
20 January 2011 After a formal meeting to discuss the BSkyB bid: "Good to see u too. Hope u understand why we have to have the long process. Let's meet up when things are resolved."
13 March 2011 In response to a text from Michel complimenting Hunt on his appearance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "Merci hopefully when consultation over we can have a coffee like the old days!"
31 July 2011 Following the collapse of the BSkyB bid: "Dear Fred it has been the most challenging time for all of us. Thank goodness we have children to remind us what really matters! Would be great to catch up when the dust has settled Jeremy."
Ministerial code: The key rules
David Cameron is under pressure to order an official inquiry into whether Jeremy Hunt breached the ministerial code of conduct in his handling of News Corp's takeover of BSkyB.
Although the Culture Secretary is clinging on to his job after yesterday's resignation of his special adviser Adam Smith, Labour increased the heat on Mr Hunt by alleging he had breached three rules in the code by:
* Failing to take responsibility for the actions of his adviser, whose communications with News Corp he admits were "not appropriate" during a quasi-judicial process on the takeover;
* Not giving accurate and truthful information to parliament when he said in March 2011 he had published "all the documents relating to.... all the exchanges between my department and News Corp";
* Not announcing decision on the bid in January last year to parliament by tipping off News Corp in advance.
In a letter to Mr Cameron last night, Harriet Harman, the shadow Culture Secretary, said these "clear breaches of the code" should be investigated urgently by Sir Alex Allan, the independent adviser on ministers' interests.
Sir Alex cannot intervene unless the Prime Minister refers a matter to him, which critics say leaves the PM as judge and jury. Mr Smith's resignation gave Mr Hunt breathing space, but his fate could rest on his performance at the Leveson Inquiry.
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