Leading article: Not enough to exonerate Mr Hunt over News Corp

Of the three charges, none was answered sufficiently well to let the minister off the hook

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jeremy Hunt was fighting for his political life at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, and he was fighting hard. The Prime Minister thought it was enough, and subsequently ruled out any further investigation into the Culture Secretary's handling of News Corporation's bid for BSkyB. But no brandishing of independent advice, no elaboration of decisions that enraged James Murdoch, and no reflections on the basic courtesy of replying to text messages (even ones from "pushy" lobbyists), can negate the fact that the Culture Secretary's office had wholly inappropriate contact with News Corp. That impropriety was, and remains, Mr Hunt's responsibility as the Secretary of State.

In fact, of the three charges to be faced, none was answered sufficiently conclusively to let Mr Hunt off the hook. It was with regards to his impartiality that the Culture Secretary had most to say. Mr Hunt admitted that he was sympathetic to the arguments in favour of the Murdochs' BSkyB bid. Indeed, he could hardly not, given the wealth of evidence that his inclinations tilted as much in favour of the deal as those of his discredited quasi-judicial predecessor, Vince Cable, tended against it. But any personal views were put to one side with the assumption of the formal role, Mr Hunt claims.

Such disinterested professionalism is, of course, possible. But credulity is strained to breaking point by the volume and tone of the Culture Secretary's contact with News Corp, not least a previously unseen text message – congratulating James Murdoch on a European regulatory hurdle cleared – sent just hours before Mr Hunt was installed as a supposedly impartial arbiter.

Even were Mr Hunt to be taken at his word as regards his impartiality, therefore, there is a second matter that remains outstanding. Despite his refusal of requests for face-to-face meetings, Mr Hunt still exchanged any number of text messages with News Corp's head of public affairs, Fréd Michel. Substantive or not, such contact hardly constitutes the official channel required by the quasi-judicial process. And his special adviser, Adam Smith, was engaged in an almost daily back-and-forth with Mr Michel regarding the progress of the deal, none of which was minuted or monitored, as required.

Third, then, is the question of Mr Smith's brief. It is true that there was a valid role for him as point of contact for News Corp. But the job was far removed from that of the traditional special adviser, speaking for their minister. Yet Mr Smith was never formally apprised of the fact that, in his dealings with News Corp, his remit was very different. In the context of a proposed takeover that would change the shape of Britain's media landscape, such laxity is inexcusable. Even worse, Mr Hunt claims no knowledge of the "barrage" of emails and text messages Mr Smith received from Mr Michel, and apparently never thought to ask, despite the company's intense focus on the deal and its reputation for forcefully representing its interests.

It is not up to Lord Justice Leveson to rule on Mr Hunt's fitness for office. Indeed, it is deeply unsatisfactory that an inquiry into media ethics and behaviour should be forced to act as a proxy trial of ministerial competence out of a Prime Ministerial desire to dodge the proper parliamentary investigation. Barely more than an hour after Mr Hunt's evidence ended, Mr Cameron declared the matter dealt with and concluded. It absolutely is not. Under the Ministerial Code, the Secretary of State is responsible for the activities of his special advisers. Either Mr Smith was acting on his own initiative, in which it was an egregious failure of management, or he was doing exactly what was required of him, in which case it was a gross violation of quasi-judicial impartiality. Yesterday's hearing only made it clearer than ever: Mr Hunt must go.