Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt faces fresh questions over his involvement with News Corp’s bid for control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, as emails shown to the Leveson Inquiry today suggest he sought guidance from the company over phone hacking.
The 27 June 2011 email from News Corp PR chief Frédéric Michel to ex-News International CEO Rebekah Brooks — who was today giving evidence at the Inquiry — read:
JH is now starting to looking [sic] to phone hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning…
Hunt’s spokeswoman has said the claim was “inaccurate”.
The email also revealed that Hunt was due to make an “extremely helpful” statement to Parliament regarding the bid, based on his belief that “phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues”. On 30 June Hunt announced the bid could go ahead, subject to one further public consultation.
The 27 June message adds heat to Hunt, who has already faced intense pressure in the wake of 160 pages’ worth of emails between Michel and Hunt’s adviser Adam Smith that were released to the Inquiry on 24 April. These revealed that News Corp was being given advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the BSkyB bid.
Smith has since resigned, saying that he had acted without Hunt’s authority and that his contact with News Corp “went too far”. Hunt has contended that he himself acted within the ministerial code.
News Corp abandoned the takeover bid in July 2011 in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
Brooks’ day-long appearance marked the second day of the third module of the Inquiry, which is examining relations between press and politicians. Inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC said these relationships may have been “over-cosy” in his opening remarks yesterday.
Brooks swayed from appearing nervous to restless and was more impassioned towards the end of her evidence. Discussing her contact with David Cameron, Brooks revealed the PM signed off his text messages to her with “LOL”, under the impression it meant “lots of love” rather than “laugh out loud”.
When Brooks clarified the difference to the PM, he then stopped using the acronym, the Inquiry learned.
Brooks’s contact with Cameron has been the focus of attention this week, with reports that the PM had texted her up to 12 times a day. Brooks dismissed the claim as “preposterous”, noting that he would send her messages once or twice a week.
She told the Inquiry she had received messages of commiserations from Cameron, chancellor George Osborne and former prime minister Tony Blair after her July 2011 resignation. She confirmed that she received a message from Cameron, the gist of which was to “keep your head up”, but that it was not a “direct text message”.
She said that she spoke to Cameron “in general terms” after the Guardian published its July 2009 story on phone hacking that had claimed the practice was not limited to a single reporter. She added that they discussed it in more detail the following year as civil cases were brought forward.
The atmosphere between Jay and Brooks turned dour as the afternoon wore on and Jay’s usually mild questioning became more terse. Brooks defended some of the Sun’s more controversial coverage, notably its 2006 story on former prime minister Gordon Brown’s son Fraser suffering from cystic fibrosis.
When pressed over the source of the piece, Brooks refused to budge, asserting that the story came from the father of another cystic fibrosis sufferer. Brown had alleged the paper obtained the information through hacking into his son’s medical records, which the redtop countered was “false” and “a smear”.
For Lord Justice Leveson, the issue was whether it was “part of the culture of the press that attack is the best form of defence”.
Brooks, who said she was friends with Brown’s wife Sarah — whom she called an “amazing woman” — maintained she had the couple’s express permission before publishing the story.
“If the Browns had asked me not to run cystic fibrosis story, I wouldn’t have,” she said.
She also countered Jay’s suggestion that the Sarah’s Law campaign run by the News of the World to “name and shame” known sex offenders was “sensationalised” and “inflammatory”. Brooks maintained the approach taken, arguing she could not predict the reprisals that ensued (a Newport-based paediatrician was mistaken for a paedophile in August 2000, with the word “paedo” being written across the front of her home). However, she conceded that she had some regrets, mentioning the list of convicted paedophiles that had been published in the paper.
Throughout her evidence, Brooks reiterated the power of the Sun was its “readership”, whose voices she had sought to reflect during her editorship from 2003-2009.
“If a journalist ever compromised their readership or their role through friendship then it’s their failing,” she said.
The Inquiry continues on Monday.
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