Culture secretary sent text saying ‘congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go!’ hours before he was put in charge of bid
Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, texted James Murdoch congratulating him on getting approval from Brussels for News Corporation’s £8bn BSkyB takeover, barely 90 minutes before news broke of Vince Cable’s comment that he was at war with Rupert Murdoch.
In evidence revealed at the Leveson inquiry on Thursday morning, it also emerged that Hunt texted the chancellor, George Osborne, on the same day, 21 December 2010, warning that Vince Cable’s hostile comment about Rupert Murdoch was going to “screw up” the bid.
Hunt and Murdoch exchanged texts hours before he formally took over responsibility for the proposed acquisition from Cable, after the business secretary’s comment to undercover Daily Telegraph reporters that he was at war with Murdoch became public.
Hunt texted James Murdoch at 12.46pm on 21 December, about five hours before he inherited Cable’s quasi-judicial responsibilities for the News Corp/Sky bid, saying: “Sorry to miss your call. Am on my mobile now, Jeremy.”
After a further exchange of texts about arranging a 4pm phone call later that day, at 12.57pm Hunt texted Murdoch: “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go!”
This was a reference to a decision that day by the European commission to give the green light to the BSkyB takeover on competition grounds.
At about 2.30pm on 21 December the BBC’s Robert Peston broke the Cable story. At 4pm Hunt spoke to James Murdoch on the phone, as they had earlier arranged. Within 20 minutes, Hunt was having text and email exchanges with Osborne and Andy Coulson, the then director of communications at Downing Street, about what to do about Cable’s comment.
Hunt told the Leveson inquiry that during the 4pm phone call with James Murdoch, the News Corp executive was “expressing his concern that there was bias in the [bid] process” because of what Cable said and “I think my email to Andy Coulson and text message to George were my response to Mr Murdoch’s call”.
His email to Coulson, timed at 4.10pm said: “Could we chat about this. Am seriously worried Vince will do real damage to coalition with his comments.”
Two minutes earlier, at 4.08pm, he texted Osborne: “Cld we chat about Murdoch Sky bid am seriously worried we are going to screw this up. Jeremy.”
Almost immediately, he fires off another text to the chancellor: “Just been called by James M. His lawyers are meeting now and saying it calls into question legitimacy of whole process from beginning ‘acute bias’ etc.”
Osborne responds to intimate that Hunt has got the job of overseeing the News Corp/Sky bid, texting him at 4.58pm: “I hope you like our solution”.
At this point Hunt admitted it was “mooted” that he would take over from Cable but it did not become public until about “an hour later”. Downing Street formally announced David Cameron’s decision to give Hunt responsibility for the bid just before 6pm.
Earlier on Thursday, Hunt told the Leveson inquiry it was “entirely appropriate” for him to have a mobile phone conversation with James Murdoch in November 2010 despite being given legal advice not to become involved in News Corp’s BSkyB bid.
The culture secretary said he “just heard Mr Murdoch out, and basically heard what he had to say about what was on his mind at that time” during the phone conversation on 16 November 2010, when Cable still had responsibility for the bid.
“I thought it was entirely appropriate to hear what a big player in my industry was saying about a particular situation. Indeed, I thought that was my duty to do so,” he added.
But Hunt said he would do things differently now because of the “massive number of conspiracy theories” that have abounded over his role in the News Corp bid.
“Having been through the BSkyB bid and the process that I’ve been through, I would take a different view about the presence of officials in conversations that a culture secretary has with media proprietors,” Hunt said. “I think actually going forward I would always want to have officials present and taking notes.”
A meeting between Hunt and Murdoch was cancelled the day before the phone call because his office had received legal advice it would be inappropriate.
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked: “If a meeting is inappropriate … why is a telephone call appropriate?”
Hunt said: “Well, I didn’t see the telephone call as a replacement for the meeting. My interpretation of the advice was that I should not involve myself in a quasi-judicial process that’s being run by another secretary of state [Vince Cable].”
Hunt said his special adviser, Adam Smith, who resigned last month after the full scale of his contact with News Corp lobbyist Frédéric Michel emerged, was a “very uncomplaining, decent hardworking person”.
“I doubt there’s a minister who worked more closely with a special adviser than I worked with Adam Smith,” he added.
He said Smith did not tell him the full extent of the pressure he was put under by Michel.
The culture secretary said he “didn’t see Mr Smith in this process as being someone who would be telling me what News Corp thought or telling News Corp what I thought. I saw him as a point of contact … in a very complex process.”
Asked what Smith was told his role should be, Hunt said: “I don’t think he was given any express instructions other than how I’ve described it.”
He added: “Mr Smith’s role was to be a point of contact among a number of official points of contact, but I do not think we said: ‘Adam, you’re going to look after Mr Michel.’ I don’t think we had that kind of conversation.”
It also emerged at the Leveson inquiry that Hunt was using a private Google email account for government business.
Hunt told the inquiry his Gmail account was “the only account I use”. Asked if he had an official Department for Culture Media and Sport email account, he replied: “No, my departmental email gets looked after by my private office.”
The information commissioner ruled in March that failure to disclose the content of private emails sent between the education secretary, Michael Gove, and his advisers had led to breach of the Freedom of Information Act. The government is challenging this, claiming they fall outside the act.
The issue was first raised last year when the Financial Times claimed to have seen a series of emails that revealed Gove and his advisers had used private Gmail accounts to conduct official business.
In a rare moment of levity during Hunt’s testimony, the culture secretary was asked about an evening reception and dinner with James Murdoch where he was said to have hidden behind a tree to avoid being seen by the Wall Street Journal’s Iain Martin.
The event, which Hunt said was hosted by the master of University College of London, took place just after Hunt joined the cabinet of the new coalition government in May 2010. Rupert Murdoch was also at the event.
“It wasn’t a private dinner with James Murdoch,” said Hunt. “I spotted a large group of media journalists and I thought this is not the time to have an impromptu interview, so I moved to a different part of the quadrangle.”
Jay asked: “There may or may not have been trees; is that right?” Hunt replied: “There may or may not have been trees.”
At this point Leveson intervened: “All right, I think we’ve moved on.”