Hunt: News of the World closure forced me to re-evaluate BSkyB bid

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt today told the Leveson Inquiry that the closure of the News of the World in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal had made him re-evaluate parent company News Corp’s bid for BSkyB.

Mr Hunt admitted that he had previously been in favour of the Murdoch takeover, but claimed he had been able to put personal bias aside when handed the “quasi-judicial” role of adjudicating on the bid, saying: “When I took charge of bid, my job was to ensure our democracy was safe.”

Addressing the resignation of his special adviser Adam Smith, Hunt blamed the “inappropriately” intimate language used by Smith on the volume of communication was subjected to by Murdoch lobbyist Frédéric Michel. However, he insisted Smith was “repeating stuff News International would already have known was my thinking”.

When asked about his views on the future of press regulation, Hunt said he would not wish to endanger free expression, but suggested that a future regulator may need to include digital and on-demand platforms as well as traditional publishing.

Hunt had been battling to save his political career following the revelation of close contact between his department and News Corp during the time of the BSkyB bid, leading to Smith’s resignation and pressure from Labour that the culture secretary had not been the “impartial arbiter” he was required to be.

Yet shortly after his appearance at the Inquiry, Downing Street announced David Cameron was satisfied Hunt had acted “properly” throughout the bid, and that he would not order an investigation into whether Hunt breached the ministerial code.

The Inquiry continues on Monday 11 June.

UPDATE 01/06: Labour said this morning it will call a vote in the House of Commons over Hunt’s conduct.

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Adam Smith, Frédéric Michel on BSkyB email controversy

Revelations filled Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice today, as Adam Smith, former special advisor to Jeremy Hunt, and Frédéric Michel, chief lobbyist for News Corp took to the stand at the Leveson Inquiry.

Adam Smith, who resigned from his position as Jeremy Hunt’s aide after the Inquiry released a collection of emails between himself and Michel, told the court that David Cameron had appointed Hunt to oversee the BSkyB bid, despite demonstrating his support for the move to the Prime Minister.

Smith explained that Hunt sent the Prime Minister a memo, firmly taking the side of James Murdoch, dismissing and criticising the BBC. In the memo, Hunt also tells Cameron the bid should not be blocked, and asks him to intervene in the decision which should have been the sole responsibility of Vince Cable.

The former aide described a “very close working relationship” with Jeremy Hunt, and described that the pair had an understanding of what was expected of him in his role as special advisor. He added that he and his team were unfamiliar with a “quasi-judicial role”, until Hunt was appointed to oversee the bid, but explained that he approached it in the same way as every other policy.

He added: “My understanding was that Mr Hunt had to decide on the media plurality issues, and Mr Hunt himself had to decide on the bid. There was no difference in the way I approached it.”

Describing his role as Hunt’s advisor, Smith explained acted as a point of contact for organisations wishing to speak to the Secretary of State. He said he would be on the “receiving end of people phoning up to have a grumble about a process”. With particular focus on the BSkyB bid, Smith told the court he acted as “a buffer and a channel of communication” for News Corp.

When asked by Robert Jay QC whether he felt the assertion that Hunt was a “cheerleader” for News Corp as true, Smith disagreed, stating: “He didn’t really have that much of a relationship with ether of the Murdoch’s — he tended to deal with, as the inquiry has heard, Michel.”

Towards the end of his brief spell of evidence, which will continue tomorrow, Smith told the court that his views on the bid which were based purely on expert evidence, were broadly the same as Hunt’s. He added: “I didn’t particularly mind either way whether it happened or not. In a funny sort of way I didn’t see what everyone was getting so worked up about.”

In a much longer session of evidence, Jay thoroughly questioned Frédéric Michel on the emails exchanged between himself, Jeremy Hunt and Adam Smith. Jay detailed more than 1000 text messages which were sent between News Corp and the bid office, along with 191 phone-calls and 158 emails.

Michel insisted to the court that he was under the “impression” that Hunt was aware of the details being passed to him by Smith, in relation to the BSkyB bid, and believed that the “feedback” he was receiving from the aide had been discussed with Hunt. Michel added that the purpose of his contact was to “check the temperature at Westminster.”

The lobbyist also told the court that he received no legal advice into the meaning of a quasi-judicial role, but was aware it was regarded as inappropriate to have discussions with the Secretary of State.

He said: “It was the first time I had to deal with such a transaction — I didn’t have specific detailed reminder of what it meant to have a quasi-judicial process. I was never of the view that it was inappropriate to try to put the view to these offices. The legal team assessed that they key element of a quasi-judicial process was not to have inappropriate contact with the secretary of state.”

Despite that, Jay outlined a range of text messages and emails contacting Hunt, and raised the question of whether his contact with Smith was appropriate. Michel consistently denied that the contact was inappropriate, and stressed that Smith did not offer him a “running commentary” of the proceedings related to the bid.

Michel said: “Smith gave me updates on timings, process, atmospherics of the day. We were in contact a lot and I guess he was being helpful on the process.  I think running commentary is a very broad definition. I think it was much more precise than chit chat commentary.”

He added: “Adam has always been a very warm, professional, available adviser, and always very diligent in his work with me. The only interactions I have had with him were always professional and reliable.”

Adam Smith will appear before the inquiry to complete his evidence tomorrow morning, and Jeremy Hunt is expected to be called to give evidence next week.


Brooks email puts further pressure on Hunt

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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