Hunt accused of giving News Corp special access over BSkyB bid.
Hunt accused of giving News Corp special access over BSkyB bid.
24 Apr 12

In an explosive afternoon at the Leveson Inquiry, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was branded a “cheerleader” for the News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB.

A round of revelations from former News International chairman James Murdoch, detailing extensive emails between the media proprietor and News Corporation’s director of public affairs, Fréderic Michel, suggested Hunt was in close contact with News International during the time business secretary Vince Cable was considering the BSkyB bid.

The inquiry heard that Hunt had received “strong legal advice” against meeting with Murdoch, but one email suggested that the pair speak on the telephone at a later date. As the hearing continued through the afternoon, Robert Jay QC explored numerous emails describing communications between Michel and Hunt’s office and advisors.

Jay told Murdoch that the emails made it “clear that you were receiving information along the lines that the UK government as a whole would be supportive of News Corp”, but Murdoch replied that Hunt had made similar comments publically, and the emails were “not inappropriate”.

Murdoch said: “I think Mr Hunt had said personally he didn’t see any issues … there’s no special information in there.”

The court heard that Hunt had said he was “frustrated” at not being able to contact Murdoch. After exploring a number of emails, Jay proposed that as informal contact had been discouraged, Michel continued communications with Hunt’s office through back door methods:

Jay said: “Mr Hunt must have taken the advice that formal meetings were ok, that would not impugn the fairness of the process. Informal contact would be inappropriate and the way to avoid the appearance of that is to let that contact take place secretly via Michel.”

Despite the support being given to Murdoch and News Corporation by Hunt, he denied thinking the BSkyB deal was “in the bag”, stressing that he was “very worried” about the transaction and his concerns grew as the process continued.

The Leveson Inquiry today published the 163 pages of correspondence between Jeremy Hunt’s office and News Corp over the BSkyB takeover.

Hunt was handed responsibility for the bid in December 2010 after it was taken away from Vince Cable, and has repeatedly stressed that the bid was handled in a way which was “completely fair, impartial and above board”.

Pressure has begun to mount on Hunt to resign amid the allegations, and a number of bookmakers have stopped taking bets that he will be the next cabinet minister to leave the government. A source reportedly told the BBC that the politician was “not even considering resignation” and would present his own evidence to the inquiry within the coming days.

Murdoch was also probed on his relationships with other politicians, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. He admitted, for the first time, that in 2010 during a dinner at the home of Rebekah Brooks, former News International chief executive, he discussed the BSkyB deal with Cameron, but Murdoch said he mentioned the dismissal of Cable during a “tiny conversation”.

The former chairman denied that his meetings with Cameron were to ascertain where he stood on issues such as regulation of press and TV, which would affect Mr Murdoch’s companies.

Murdoch also denied linking the political affiliation of a newspaper to a “commercial transaction like this”.

He added: “Nor would I expect that political support one way or another ever to translate into a minister behaving in an appropriate way, ever. I simply would not do business that way.”

James Murdoch resigned from News International in February 2012.

Rupert Murdoch will give evidence to the inquiry tomorrow, to deal with allegations that he was aware of allegations that phone hacking was more widespread than “rogue reporter” Clive Goodman.

Follow Index’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry @IndexLeveson