Culture secretary under pressure as email appears to show he asked Murdoch firm’s advice on dealing with hacking scandal
The embattled culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, came under renewed pressure when the former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks disclosed an email appearing to show he had sought the company’s advice over how Downing Street should respond to the mounting phone-hacking scandal.
The email, which also suggests Hunt sought to avoid a public inquiry into phone hacking, emerged on another day of extraordinary disclosures about the intimacy between Rupert Murdoch’s company and government ministers.
The email from News Corporation lobbyist Frédéric Michel written in June 2011 told Brooks that Hunt was poised to make an “extremely helpful” statement about the company’s proposed acquisition of BSkyB, saying the takeover would be approved regardless of phone-hacking allegations.
Michel warned her, days before the Guardian revealed that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been targeted by the News of the World, that “JH [Jeremy Hunt] is now starting to looking into phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly” andhe “has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning”.
A culture department spokesperson said on Friday: “Jeremy Hunt will respond to this when he gives his evidence to the Leveson inquiry in due course. He is confident his evidence will vindicate the position that he has behaved with integrity on every issue.”
During five hours of testimony, Brooks revealed she dined with George Osborne on 13 December 2010, when she discussed Ofcom’s initial objections to News Corp’s £8bn bid. The objections had been sent in a confidential “issues letter” by the media regulator to her company three days before. Following a short discussion, the then News International boss reported to James Murdoch the next day that Osborne had expressed “total bafflement”.
In a steely and at times tetchy performance, Brooks said her lobbying of the chancellor had been “entirely appropriate” because she was “reflecting the opposite view to the view he had heard by that stage from pretty much every member of the anti-Sky bid alliance”.
But Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, said the email demonstrated it was “obvious that he was supportive of your bid, wasn’t he”, a suggestion Brooks rejected. The disclosures about her conversations with the chancellor will increase the likelihood that he will be called to appear before the inquiry. Of eight ministers who have submitted statements to Leveson, he is the only one not to have been asked to appear.
Though less damaging than some in Downing Street had feared, Brooks’ testimony also proved embarrassing for David Cameron. She revealed the prime minister signed texts “DC” or sometimes “LOL” – until she explained that the phrase meant “laugh out loud”, not “lots of love”.
She said she typically texted Cameron once a week, and twice a week during the 2010 election campaign, dismissing reports that he sometimes texted her up to 12 times a day as “preposterous” .
Brooks said any email correspondence between her and politicians was held by News International. She had only copies of emails and texts that were on her BlackBerry during six weeks in June and July 2011, but a single message from Cameron had been “compressed” and could not now be read.
Brooks confirmed she had socialised with Cameron at least twice within four days in Oxfordshire over Christmas 2010, towards the end of a year in which they had already met at least five times. The first contact of the festive season was a dinner at her house on 23 December, when there was a conversation about the BSkyB bid. The second was a previously undisclosed “mulled wine, mince pie” party organised by her sister-in-law on Boxing Day, at which she was unsure if she had spoken to Cameron or his wife, Samantha, although “my sister-in-law tells me they were definitely there”.
Although Brooks has been arrested in connection with phone-hacking and bribery investigations and on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, the inquiry heard she had discussed the growing hacking allegations with Cameron at some point during 2010.
She said the prime minister – who at that point was still employing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson – had asked her for an update. “I think it had been on the news that day, and I think I explained the story behind the news. No secret information, no privileged information, just a general update,” Brooks said. The disclosure will add to the pressure on Cameron to explain why he failed to challenge Coulson about the hacking allegations against him at any time after the Guardian broke the story in July 2009.
However, the most serious evidence to emerge regarded Hunt, whose fate has been hanging in the balance since Rupert Murdoch provided 163 pages of News Corp emails to the Leveson inquiry, which suggested that Michel had obtained a large amount of information about the progress of ministerial approval of the BSkyB bid. Finding a fresh email from Michel that had eluded Murdoch’s legal team last month, Brooks showed that she had been told Hunt would approve the long-delayed takeover because he believed “phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues”. Michel told Brooks the sought-after approval would happen later, in the last week of June 2011.
The accuracy of Michel’s predictions in his email was borne out in Hunt’s statement to parliament on 30 June, essentially approving News Corp’s bid for Sky. Hunt told MPs that “while the phone-hacking allegations are very serious they were not material to my consideration”. The News Corp bid was only derailed the following month following the public outcry after the Milly Dowler hacking revelation and the closure of the News of the World.
A spokesperson for the culture department said: “It has already been made clear that when Fred Michel has claimed in emails to be speaking to Jeremy Hunt that was not the case.”
Michel had said his repeated references to Hunt and “JH” referred to information obtained from his special adviser, Adam Smith. Smith resigned last month after Hunt said he had strayed beyond his remit.
Brooks was also questioned in detail about the Sun’s publication of a story revealing that Gordon Brown’s son had cystic fibrosis. She claimed she would not have run the story without the Browns’ consent, but the couple later issued a statement contradicting her account. It said: “The idea that we would have volunteered our permission or were happy that a story about our son’s health was about to enter the public domain is untrue.”