Leveson inquiry told that News Corp lobbyist Frédéric Michel’s email claimed culture secretary wanted ‘private guidance’ on bid amid phone-hacking row
Rebekah Brooks was told by a News Corporation lobbyist in June 2011 that Jeremy Hunt was poised to make an “extremely helpful” statement about their company’s proposed acquisition of BSkyB, saying that the £8bn bid should be approved without regard to mounting phone-hacking allegations.
Frédéric Michel wrote to Brooks on 27 June 2011, as the News Corp bid was reaching its final stages, saying the culture secretary would green-light the bid because he believed “phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues” that had concerned rivals. Hunt essentially approved the bid, bar a few details, on 30 June.
Michel, News Corp’s head of public affairs for Europe, had emailed Brooks to inform her that “Hunt will be making references to phone hacking in his statement on Rubicon [the codename for the Sky bid] this week”, and warned that while this would not delay the bid approval, the culture secretary was seeking advice on how to tackle the growing phone-hacking controversy.
Michel wrote that “JH [Jeremy Hunt] is no[w] starting to looking to phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly” and that he “has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning”.
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”.
However, a week later the Guardian revealed that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been targeted by the News of the World. This prompted an escalation of the phone-hacking scandal, leading to the closure of the News of the World and – in the face of mounting political opposition – News Corp dropping its bid for BSkyB in July 2011.
In the same month, Brooks resigned as chief executive of News of the World publisher News International.
Emails previously disclosed to the Leveson inquiry written by Michel to James Murdoch, News Corp’s deputy chief operating officer, have left Hunt’s political career hanging in the balance.
They suggested that Michel had obtained a large amount of information as to the progress of ministerial approval of the BSkyB bid.
However, Michel said his repeated references to Hunt and “JH” in fact referred to information obtained from his special adviser, Adam Smith.
Smith resigned last month after Hunt said he had strayed beyond his remit.
Brooks also told the inquiry she discussed Ofcom’s private objections to the the BSkyB bid with George Osborne at a private dinner in December 2010, at which the chancellor expressed “total bafflement” with the regulator’s questions regarding News Corp’s proposed takeover.
The objections were contained in an “issues letter” sent by media regulator Ofcom directly to News Corp in December 2010. Brooks told the Leveson inquiry she “must have” discussed this with Osborne at a dinner on 13 December. The issues letter was not made public.
Brooks said she had “a very brief conversation” with the chancellor at the dinner about the bid and Ofcom’s view, which was also attended by her husband Charlie, Osborne’s wife Frances, and her then deputy Will Lewis and his wife.
Brooks said she thought the lobbying “entirely appropriate”, adding that 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”.
A day later, in response to an email discussing Ofcom’s objections, Brooks emailed senior colleagues at News International to summarise Osborne’s response as “total bafflement”. She replied within three minutes to the original note because she had happened to have been out to dinner with the chancellor the night before.
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, said that the email demonstrated that it was “obvious that he was supportive of your bid, wasn’t he”.
Brooks disagreed with his interpretation, and replied that the chancellor was expressing “bafflement”. “Or he was perplexed at the – whatever – you’re telling me it was the issues letter.”
At the time of the dinner business secretary Vince Cable was the minister responsible for adjudicating on the News Corp bid for Sky.