Ian Burrell: These texts raise real doubts about Jeremy Hunt's even-handedness

 

For those who had already made up their mind that Jeremy Hunt had to go, the newly-released texts from the Culture Secretary were mere confirmation of his role as a cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

"Just Ofcom to go", he messaged James Murdoch as News Corp’s BSkyB bid cleared the European regulatory hurdle. "Seriously worried we are going to screw this up", he warned the Chancellor George Osborne when Business Secretary Vince Cable was revealed to be hostile to the deal.

Equally, Hunt’s supporters took the view that his Leveson evidence had offered nothing to contradict his assertion that he had done nothing wrong.

David Elstein, former chief executive of Channel 5 and to the right-of-centre politically, argued that News Corp’s public affairs strategy had been “wrong from start to finish” and that Hunt’s department had given it nothing of value.

“They thought they could apply their usual pressure and get some result and they were completely wrong.”

But was the Culture Secretary’s excruciating “daddy” communication with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel really a fobbing off of an annoyingly persistent public affairs man?

Hunt admitted today he was aware that his adviser Adam Smith was in constant contact with News Corp. So why didn’t he rein in the relationship? That only happened in April when the level of intimacy was revealed and Hunt promptly told his junior “Everyone here thinks you need to go.”

Hunt may say he followed due process but there are real doubts about his even-handedness. While News Corp had almost constant access to his office, opponents of the Sky deal had the door shut in their faces.

Three times their lawyers Slaughter & May wrote to Hunt asking to discuss the weaknesses of the undertakings given by News Corp to ensure its bid was approved.

Each time the Culture Secretary ruled such contact inappropriate. And when a meeting finally took place on 24 March last year, he had already accepted News Corp’s proposal to spin off Sky News.

As someone close to the bid said last night: “There was an enormous level of direct contact between a group of people who seemed to think they were all on the same side.” 

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