Culture secretary had difficulty at Leveson inquiry setting aside sympathies and showing he could handle BSkyB bid fairly
The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, attempted to achieve two goals at the Leveson inquiry – to show he handled the BSkyB bid with procedural fairness and also show that unlike the business secretary, Vince Cable, he was able to set aside personal sympathies and judge the bid on its merits.
In addition, he hoped to display a personal loyalty to his special adviser, Adam Smith, and that Smith had rightly interpreted his role as acting as his buffer to News Corporation.
Morning sessions on the opening day of a cricket match can sometimes be misleading, but judging by the first three hours, Hunt was struggling to achieve these goals. A torrid first hour of hostile bowling from Robert Jay repeatedly penetrated Hunt’s defences, with the result that, far from answering questions, Hunt ended up facing more.
It emerged he held inappropriate unminuted meetings, something he conceded, he had phone calls with James Murdoch when being expressly advised not to do so by his officials, conducted most of his business via a private email account, and was aware that Smith was in constant contact with News Corp, a fact that his permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens did not know. Hunt also frequently derided Ofcom, even though, as he pointed out, he insisted the regulator had to be involved in the critical role of assessing the undertakings.
As the evidence session wore on, the scale of Hunt’s sympathies towards News Corp was shown to be greater than imagined. At one point he described the bid as critical to thousands of jobs and the future of the sector.
Hours before he was considered to take over the role of judging on the BSkyB bid from the business secretary, Vince Cable, he congratulated James Murdoch on the decision, made coincidentally on the same day by the European commission, to clear the bid on competition grounds, texting: “Only Ofcom to go”.
Hunt conceded that the text, sent at 12.54pm, showed sympathy for the bid. Later that afternoon, once Cable’s remarks declaring war on Murdoch were leaked by the BBC, he spoke with James Murdoch and then lobbied the chancellor, George Osborne, by text and Andy Coulson by email, expressing concerns that the whole bid was in danger of being “screwed up”.
Yet when asked to take over the handling of the bid, Hunt did not tell the cabinet secretary, Lord O’Donnell, of these exchanges. Nor did he tell him he had lobbied No 10 privately in November 2010 to demand that Vince Cable take a different approach to the bid.
The fresh evidence of texts and emails between Hunt, Osborne, Coulson and James Murdoch shed further light on the nexus of relationships in Downing Street. It makes it increasingly likely that Osborne himself will be called to give evidence.
Osborne, after all, told Hunt he played a role in the solution to the Cable affair – handing responsibility to Hunt.
Hunt maintained these exchanges still do not undermine his point that he handled the bid fairly, effectively wiping his mind clean of bias.
Some of Thursday’s key exchanges were focused on Hunt’s knowledge of his special adviser’s activities. These are critical to determining whether Hunt has breached the ministerial code on the basis that he is responsible for the conduct of his political adviser, and that conduct had been improper.
He described Smith as a “very uncomplaining, decent, hard-working person”, but Hunt insisted he did not know about the volume of the texts between Smith and Michel. “We weren’t expecting 542 text messages to Mr Smith … when you do the analysis it looks like Mr Michel was trying to contact Mr Smith five times every working day, which is an extraordinary amount we didn’t anticipate at all.” Flattery and pushiness were weapons that Michel deployed, he conceded.
Hunt said he was shocked by the level of contact, and Smith never told him the full extent of the pressure he was put under by Michel.
Hunt persistently defended Smith, saying “he is one of the most decent honest and honourable people”, adding he did not think Michel’s account of his exchanges with Smith were always accurate, including suggestions that the culture department asked News Corp to forward resounding criticisms of Ofcom’s work.
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.”
Asked about this own frequent text contacts with News Corp, Hunt said it was simply a sign of his willingness to be courteous, but it had no impact on the bid process.
Early suggestions from the Tory benches is that Hunt can survive. Louise Mensch, a Conservative member of the culture select committee, made a brave defence of Hunt, saying he had been completely exonerated.
She denied Hunt misled parliament by telling MPs he made absolutely no interventions in the quasi-judicial decisions of Cable. Yet Hunt admitted to Leveson he had sent a memo in November 2010 trying to persuade David Cameron to convene a high-level meeting on Cable’s handling of the bid. Hunt also told Leveson that in retrospect it would have been impossible for Cable to attend such a meeting, and conceded he did not know enough about the quasi-judicial process to realise the request was impossible.