Leading article: Ten questions for Jeremy Hunt

Would he like to count again the conversations with News Corp he told the Commons were 'zero'?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Culture Secretary and the inner Conservative entourage appear to suffer from a split collective personality. With their lower brain functions, they feel instinctively that they are on the same side as the Murdoch family and News Corporation. Yet other parts of their brains are occasionally activated, when they recall that, as an elected government, they are obliged to treat commercial interests impartially.

In May 2010, Jeremy Hunt hid behind a tree before dinner with James Murdoch, trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid being seen by journalists. Yet, when he thought no one would see, he exchanged text messages with News Corp's head of public affairs. The mutual sign-off, "daddy", was embarrassing enough, but notes from Mr Hunt to Fred Michel promising "nothing u won't like" in a speech he was about to make betray the assumption of a common interest.

As we report today, Mr Hunt's Cabinet career hangs by his appearance at the Leveson inquiry on Thursday. There are 10 questions he must answer.

1. Why did he ignore the advice of his department's lawyers and write to the Prime Minister to warn that Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, should not block the News Corporation bid for BSkyB, when neither he nor Mr Cameron were allowed to influence Mr Cable's decision?

2. Why did Mr Hunt then tell the Commons on 25 April: "I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was... the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business"?

3. Having taken over Mr Cable's responsibilities for the BSkyB bid, did Mr Hunt collude with News Corp to influence Ofcom's advice to him, in the hope that it would advise him, as it did, that he need not refer the bid to the Competition Commission?

4. Can Mr Hunt explain why he told the Commons on 3 March, 2011: "We are publishing all the documents relating to all the meetings... all the exchanges between my department and News Corporation," when the Leveson inquiry has published so much more?

5. Can Mr Hunt explain why he told the Commons on 25 April that Jonathan Stephens, his permanent secretary, had "authorised" and "approved" Adam Smith, his special adviser, as a point of contact with News Corp, but Mr Stephens said only that he was "content and aware"?

6. Would Mr Hunt like to count again his conversations with Mr Michel during the bid period, having told the Commons on 25 April that there were "zero"?

7. Does Mr Hunt expect Lord Justice Leveson to believe that he did not know that his special adviser was in such friendly contact with News Corp throughout?

8. If Adam Smith is a shield for Mr Hunt, is not Mr Hunt a shield for George Osborne and Mr Cameron, who both wanted to give the Murdochs what they wanted, but with enough deniability to avoid the opprobrium of public opinion?

9. Is it true that Mr Osborne suggested that Mr Hunt's job as Culture Secretary meant getting as close as possible to the Murdochs?

10. Why did Mr Hunt fail to take personal responsibility for sacking his fall-guy special adviser, telling him, "Everyone here says you need to go"?

Mr Cameron's foreword to the new edition of the Ministerial Code, written in May 2010, stated, "We must be different from what has gone before us. Careful with public money. Transparent about what we do and how we do it. Determined to act in the national interest, above improper influence. Mindful of our duty."

It is hard to see how Mr Hunt can persuade us this week that Mr Cameron's foreword was anything other than insincere verbiage.