Questioning that left Jeremy Hunt on the ropes
Jeremy Hunt was straining the rules throughout the process
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Friday 01 June 2012
The Leveson Inquiry became a tribunal on the political future of Jeremy Hunt yesterday. During six hours of questioning, the Culture Secretary was challenged on texts and emails to News Corp and to James Murdoch that showed he was straining the rules on what he should and shouldn't do as the minister in charge of the controversial BSkyB takeover.
Last night David Cameron refused to order an inquiry into whether Mr Hunt broke the Ministerial Code. However his evidence gave an insight into what was happening behind the scenes as the deal played out.
The 'Minister for Murdoch'
Jeremy Hunt was Culture Secretary, but his actions during the lengthy BSkyB bid often made him sound like the Cabinet's Minister for Murdoch.
When Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, decided to refer the BSkyB bid to the regulator, Ofcom, Mr Hunt sent a memo to No 10 delivering the precise reaction of James Murdoch. He told the Prime Minister that the regulator wouldn't give News Corp a fair hearing, that they might take legal action, and that all the Murdoch empire wanted to do was deliver a vast "new media" operation that would create jobs. "Isn't that what all media companies have to do ultimately?", he argued.
George Osborne's involvement
When Mr Hunt took over as the judge of the BSkyB bid from Mr Cable in December 2010, he contacted both George Osborne at the Treasury and James Murdoch to pass on the news. He told the Chancellor he was "still seriously worried we are going to screw this up", and passed on Mr Murdoch's view that Mr Cable's "bias" was still being felt.
Mr Osborne then appears to have implied that his new role had been dreamt up by himself and the PM: "I hope you like the solution," he wrote. When the bid was not blocked by the EU, Mr Hunt texted James Murdoch offering his congratulations: "Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go!"
The meeting that never was
Mr Hunt came across as a "cheerleader" for News Corp. In the Culture Secretary, Rupert and James Murdoch knew the bid for total control of BSkyB was in "sympathetic" hands. The Inquiry learned that Mr Hunt attempted to call a meeting on the bid which Mr Cameron, Nick Clegg and Mr Cable were supposed to attend.
Mr Cable was making the quasi-judicial call on the bid; Mr Hunt's department was supposed to be mere observers. But these rules were being ignored by Mr Hunt. The meeting never took place, but looking back, the Culture Secretary told the Inquiry he got his early attempts to influence Mr Cable wrong, saying: "I now realise it would not have been possible for Vince Cable to attend such a meeting."
News Corp's lobbying offensive
At Mr Hunt's side during his time in opposition and into government was his special adviser, Adam Smith. The aide's role was to be Mr Hunt's eyes and ears, and act as his voice when needed. Mr Hunt described his qualities to the Inquiry: loyal, intelligent, hard-working, politically shrewd, informed.
But Mr Hunt also claimed to be unaware of the pressures that News Corp's senior lobbyist, Fréd Michel, was putting his aide under. He told the Inquiry of the scale of "the barrage": 35 texts over two days (542 in total), plus 140 telephone calls (a minimum of five a day including weekends).
Mr Smith had never been warned of the new legal parameters when his boss took over the decision on the bid. Mr Hunt told the Inquiry: "I was totally shocked when I discovered that level of contact and I think that explains why he slipped into inappropriate language."
How phone hacking changed everything
Simmering behind the scenes was the emergence of new information about phone hacking. Mr Hunt said he eventually sought legal advice on the relevance of phone hacking to the bid, as he felt it threw up new issues of trust.
After the Milly Dowler revelations in July 2011, phone hacking and the bid became inextricably linked. Mr Hunt sent a memo to No 10 warning of "corporate governance issues" and his worries about News Corp's ability to pass the "fit and proper" ownership test required in law.
Bidding wars: The day Jeremy Hunt took charge
On 21 December 2010, Vince Cable – the Business Secretary who had referred the BSkyB bid to Ofcom – was stripped of his role in the £8bn takeover. The "quasi-judicial" decision was handed to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Documents published by the Leveson Inquiry showed the frenzy of messages that passed that day between News Corp, senior Cabinet ministers and Mr Hunt.
Midday The European Commission approved News Corp's bid to buy the remaining 61 per cent holding it did not own in BSkyB, the UK's richest broadcaster.
12.46pm Hunt texted James Murdoch: "Sorry to miss your call. Am on my mobile now."
12.52pm James Murdoch texted Hunt: "Have to run into next thing. Are you free anything after 14:15? I can shuffle after this."
12.57pm Hunt texted Murdoch: "Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go."
Key question Do Hunt's comments suggest that he was supporting the takeover? "Only Ofcom to go" indicates that the Culture Secretary regarded the media regulator to be merely a hurdle to be satisfactorily jumped, rather than an independent arbiter of what was best for the British media.
2.30pm The BBC business editor Robert Peston published remarks by Cable, right, to undercover reports from the Daily Telegraph (which had not printed them) that he had declared "war" on the Murdoch empire.
Key questions When did News Corp find out about Cable's comments? According to the private investigators called in by the Telegraph to trace the leak, News International's then general manager, Will Lewis, was deemed likely to have obtained Cable's quotes from a Telegraph insider and passed them to Peston. Could the purpose of Murdoch's attempted call to Hunt be to tip him off about Cable's remarks – and to ask for his help?
3.56pm News Corporation said it was "shocked and dismayed" by Cable's private hostility – which "raise serious questions about fairness and due process".
4pm Hunt and James Murdoch speak on the phone.
4.08pm Hunt texted the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne: "Could we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? I am seriously worried we are going to screw this up."
4.08pm Hunt texted Osborne: "Just been called by James [Murdoch]. His lawyers are meeting now and saying it calls into question legitimacy of whole process from beginning. 'Acute bias', etc."
4.10pm Hunt emails Andy Coulson, Downing Street's director of communications, far right: "Could we chat about this? Am seriously worried Vince will do real damage to Coalition with his comments."
4.58pm Osborne texted Hunt: "I hope you like the solution."
Key question The "solution" was the decision to pass the BSkyB bid to Hunt – so had the Government already made up its mind to hand it to him before checking with its lawyers whether he was legally acceptable, given his previous support for the bid?
5.24pm Patrick Kilgarriff, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's legal director – presumably at the request of Hunt or his aides – cautiously cleared Hunt to make the decision, despite saying his previous comments looked like they "pre-judged the issue".
5.30pm Hunt forwarded Kilgarriff's email to Ed Llewellyn, David Cameron's chief of staff.
5.45pm The Prime Minister, David Cameron, stripped Cable of responsibility for the BSkyB bid and handed it to Hunt.
Key question Why, having stripped the bid from a minister skewed against it, did the Prime Minister hand it to a Cabinet colleague apparently biased in its favour? Cameron knew of Hunt's support because the Culture Secretary had sent him a memo strongly saying the bid was good.
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