Hunt texted Osborne just before he was given responsibility for BSkyB bid. Osborne replied: ‘I hope you like our solution’
Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, texted the chancellor, George Osborne, on the day he was given responsibility for News Corporation’s £8bn BSkyB takeover bid warning that Vince Cable’s hostile comment about Rupert Murdoch was going to “screw up” the bid.
In evidence revealed at the Leveson inquiry on Thursday, it also emerged that Hunt texted James Murdoch the same day, 21 December 2010, congratulating him on getting approval from the European commission for News Corp’s BSkyB bid.
This was several 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 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 2.30pm on 21 December the BBC’s Robert Peston broke the Cable story. At 4pm Hunt talked to Murdoch on the phone, as they had arranged earlier. 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 on 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 added: “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 that 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].”