Jeremy Hunt texted George Osborne shortly before he was handed control of News Corp’s £8 billion bid for full control of BSkyB, telling the chancellor he was “seriously worried” the government would “screw up” the bid.
In evidence disclosed to the Leveson Inquiry this morning, it was also revealed that the embattled culture secretary texted James Murdoch on the same day, congratulating him for receiving approval from the European Commission on the company’s bid.
This text message was sent just hours before the BBC revealed that business secretary Vince Cable — at that point in charge of adjudicating the bid — had told undercover Telegraph reporters he had “declared war” on News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, remarks that were seen as proof of bias. Cable was later stripped of his responsibility, which was passed over to Hunt and announced by Downing Street at around 6pm on 21 December 2010.
At 12:57pm on 21 December, Hunt texted James Murdoch: “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go”, shortly after the European Commission’s approval of the bid.
At 2:30pm the BBC published Cable’s comments, which Hunt said were discussed in a phone call with James Murdoch at 4pm.
Eight minutes later Hunt texted Osborne, noting he was “seriously worried we are going to screw this up” regarding the bid. In a second message to the chancellor, he noted that Murdoch was accusing Cable of “acute bias” over the bid.
Osborne later texted Hunt: “I hope you like our solution”, shortly before Downing Street’s announcement that Hunt had been given charge for the bid.
Such revelatory messages place further pressure on Leveson to call the chancellor to give evidence before the Inquiry.
Elsewhere in an intense morning of evidence, Hunt defended his handling of the bid, saying he was .”sympathetic” to it rather than “supportive” of it”, and repeated his defence that he did not feel it presented a “major plurality” issue.
Hunt confirmed he received legal advice in November 2010 urging him that it would be “unwise” to intervene. Yet, explaining a memo he sent to David Cameron in the same month, in which he told the PM that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, Hunt said he had concerns about a situation “where we had a significant merger in my sector” that was encountering obstacles, adding that he sought to be “absolutely proper” in his approach.
“I had an absolute duty to be across the most important issue in that industry,” Hunt said.
He also defended as “appropriate” his 16 November phone call with James Murdoch, despite having received legal advice to avoid becoming involved in News Corp’s bid. Hunt told the Inquiry he “heard what was on his [Murdoch’s] mind.”
“I probably gave him a sympathetic hearing but I probably said I couldn’t get involved in that decision because I had taken legal advice that I couldn’t,” Hunt said.
A meeting between the two was cancelled the day before, following the legal advice, with Hunt explaining he did not see the telephone call as a replacement. “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 [Cable].”
Discussing the high level of contact revealed by the Inquiry last month between Hunt’s former adviser Adam Smith and News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, Hunt said his department was not prepared for the “barrage” of messages from Michel.
“I doubt there’s a minister who worked more closely with a special adviser than I worked with Adam Smith,” Hunt said, explaining that Smith, who resigned in the wake of the revelations, was aware of his views but this did not mean he spoke for him.
He added that Smith was never given instructions on how to deal with News Corp. He repeatedly referred to the adviser as an “official point of contact” to answer questions on the bid process. He rejected counsel Robert Jay QC’s suggestion that the Michel-Smith contact — which included over 1,000 text messages over the course of the bid — was an “extra layer”.
The Labour party has since upped the volume on its calls for Hunt to resign, arguing he was not the “impartial arbiter” he was required to be.
Hunt has maintained he acted properly and within the ministerial code. David Cameron said last week he did not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”, but has said he will take action if evidence to the Inquiry suggests Hunt breached the code.
The Inquiry continues with further evidence from Hunt this afternoon.
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