Martin Hickman: Defending the indefensible proves a tricky job for Hunt

  • @martin_hickman

Jeremy Hunt had a tricky job: defending the indefensible. Unsurprisingly, he struggled to balance his support for News Corp (Broadcast magazine called him a “cheerleader” for Rupert Murdoch) and his insistence that he impartially judged the mogul’s biggest ever business deal: the £8bn takeover of BSkyB.

From the start, Robert Jay, the Leveson Inquiry’s barrister, was combative.

Damningly, he produced private messages between Mr Hunt and his Government colleagues and News Corp on 21 December 2010, the day his Cabinet colleague Vince Cable was caught declaring war on the Murdoch empire.

By then, the bid had run into a hitch. Although the EU had cleared it, Mr Cable had referred it to the media regulator Ofcom, which wanted to pass it to the Competition Commission, which would have meant a lengthy delay. Mr Cable would clearly have to be stripped of the decision and it was most likely to go to the Culture Secretary, Mr Hunt.

At 12.57pm, Mr Hunt texted James Murdoch saying: “Great news and congrats on Brussels Just Ofcom to go.”

At 4pm, he had a phone call with Mr Murdoch.

At 4.08pm, he texted the Chancellor, George Osborne, to say he was “seriously worried we are going to screw this up.”

At 4.58pm, Mr Osborne texted back: “I hope you like our solution.”

At 5.45pm, the “solution” became clear: the Prime Minister David Cameron handed Mr Hunt control of the bid, despite knowing he had sent a memo to No 10 the previous month giving it his strong support.

How, the inquiry wanted to know, could Mr Hunt have taken the quasi-judicial decision when he was biased in its favour, when Mr Cable had just been stripped of it because of his bias against?

The Culture Secretary admitted he was “broadly sympathetic” to the takeover but, once he had been handed the decision, he maintained he had been thoroughly impartial. He had published all of Ofcom’s independent advice so that the public could be sure that he was a proper judge.

(He was less keen to highlight that, almost straightaway, he rejected Ofcom’s advice to make a referral to the Competition Commission and instead cooked up Undertakings in Lieu – spinning off Sky News into an independent company – which would prevent a referral.)

Mr Hunt had been “scrupulously fair throughout” the bid, he said, because he was aware that his job was “keeping democracy safe”.

How did he explain the warm texts and emails between his special advisor and News Corp’s lobbyist Fred Michel – messages which included phrases such as “game-over for the opposition”? Adam Smith, Mr Hunt said (while admitting his advisor was bright and knew his views) had been overwhelmed by Mr Michel’s advances, sucked into making “inappropriate” comments.

Even more implausibly, the Culture Secretary suggested that it only occurred to him after the Milly Dowler story broke last July that there might be “governance issues” at News Corp.

In January last year, the Metropolitan Police had begun a major criminal inquiry into News Corp’s newspaper group, in April last year News International had admitted its previous hacking inquiries had persistently misled the public, and new hacking victims were bringing new civil cases all the while. A Labour MP had already suggested in Parliament that the voicemail interception had extended to the parents of the Soham children.

Looking awkward, Mr Hunt peppered his replies with pauses and “ums”. No wonder.

@Martin_Hickman is co-author of Dial M for Murdoch