What happened on 21 December 2010, when Hunt replaced Vince Cable as minister with responsibility for overseeing bid
The Leveson inquiry has heard evidence from Jeremy Hunt about the day he was handed responsibility for dealing with News Corporation’s bid for full control of BSkyB – and revealed a previously unpublished text message from Hunt to James Murdoch in support of the bid earlier that day.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, was stripped of responsibility for dealing with the bid on 21 December 2010 after the BBC published comments recorded by undercover Daily Telegraph journalists in which Cable said he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch, comments that were interpreted as showing that he was biased against the bid.
The European commission unconditionally approves News Corporation’s bid to take full control of BSkyB on competition grounds.
Hunt texts James Murdoch: “Sorry to miss your call. Am on my mobile now. Jeremy.”
Hunt told the Leveson inquiry: “I’m presuming that he tried to call me and I had a missed call on my mobile and so I sent him a text back.”
Murdoch texts Hunt: “Have to run into next thing. Are you free anything after 2.15? I can shuffle after this.”
Hunt texts Murdoch: “How about 4?” Murdoch replies: “Done.”
Hunt texts Murdoch: “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go!”
Hunt admitted at Leveson that this conveyed a positive view on the progress of the bid.
The BBC publishes Vince Cable’s comments to undercover Daily Telegraph reporters, in which the business secretary said: “I don’t know if you have been following what has been happening with the Murdoch press, where I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win.”
An internal investigation conducted by a security company for the Telegraph later concluded that the story had probably been leaked to Peston by Will Lewis, the former Telegraph editor who by then was running News Corporation’s management standards committee. In his own testimony to the Leveson inquiry Lewis refused to comment on whether he knew anything about the origin of the Peston story. If Lewis was aware of it earlier in the day, it raises the question of whether he had shared the information with senior News Corp colleagues. Did James Murdoch already know about Cable’s compromising comment when he called Hunt earlier that day?
Officials at the Department for Business are asked if Cable will lose responsibility for the BSkyB bid. A spokeswoman replies: “I don’t have an answer to that question yet.”
An aide to Cable is asked by the Guardian what will happen to him. “I haven’t got anything to say to you now,” the aide says. Downing Street echoes this: “We are not saying anything at the moment.”
Hunt’s special adviser, Sue Beeby, sends him an email with details of Cable’s comments: “Here are Vince’s comments.”
News Corporation puts out a statement: “News Corp is shocked and dismayed by reports of Mr Cable’s comments. They raise serious questions about fairness and due process.”
Hunt has a phone call with James Murdoch.
He told the Leveson inquiry they discussed Cable’s comments. He said: “That was Mr Murdoch expressing his concern that there was bias in the process, the quasi-judicial process, because of what Dr Cable had said … I think he was just saying he was totally horrified that this seemed to show – well, I used the phrase I think in a text to Mr Osborne of ‘acute bias’ and I suspect that was the phrase he used to me.”
Hunt texts George Osborne, the chancellor, to say he is “seriously worried we are going to screw this up” regarding the BSkyB bid, and, in a second text, says Murdoch is accusing Cable of “acute bias” over the bid: “Could we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? Am seriously worried we are going to screw this up … 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.”
Hunt emails Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s communications director, from his personal Gmail account: “Could we chat about this? Am seriously worried Vince will do real damage to coalition with his comments …”
Hunt told Leveson: “I think my email to Andy Coulson and text message to George Osborne were my response to Mr Murdoch’s call [of 4pm].”
He said that around this time he also “may well have talked about it internally to my officials and special advisers. I imagine it was a sort of hot breaking issue, so I probably talked about it to a few people internally.” Asked if he discussed it with No 10 at this stage, Hunt replied: “No.”
Osborne texts Hunt: “I hope you like the solution!”
Hunt discussed this text with Leveson. He said: “First of all, I think my text to him was saying basically, ‘I’m worried this process doesn’t look like it’s being run fairly,’ and his response was saying, ‘Well, we’ve got a solution,’ and I think in between me sending a text to him and me getting that response, at official level we had an inkling that No 10 were thinking of transferring the responsibility to me as a way of dealing with the issue.”
Asked if Osborne was saying in his text that Hunt was the solution, Hunt replied: “Correct.”
Was this Osborne breaking the news to Hunt that he was “the solution”? Hunt told the inquiry: “I think I knew that it was in the offing, but I was worried about that being the solution because I knew that I had publicly made some comments that were sympathetic to the bid and I wasn’t sure whether that would mean that I could handle the bid, so I think by that stage we were making sure No 10 knew about those comments so that they didn’t go ahead and announce me … not knowing about those comments, and then find out that actually I wouldn’t be able to do it as a result of those comments.”
Hunt confirmed that at this time discussions were going on about whether his public pronouncements on the issue would stop him being given responsibility for the BSkyB bid. He added: “I don’t think I had been appointed at 16.58. I think that they were still – I think that it was being mooted as a possible solution then, but I don’t think there had been a final decision.”
When was the final decision taken? “When the prime minister got legal advice that it would be OK for me to take responsibility for the quasi-judicial process … an hour or so later.”
Hunt receives legal advice from the legal director at the Department of Culture saying that his Financial Times interview of 16 June 2010 on BSkyB could be seen as “prejudging the issue”. Hunt passes this on to Downing Street.
Downing Street announces that Cable has been stripped of responsibility for the BSkyB decision and that responsibility has been handed to Hunt.