Jeremy Hunt and Tony Blair to appear at Leveson Inquiry

Next week is set to be one of the most gripping yet in the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Monday has been reserved for former prime minister Tony Blair, who will likely be questioned about his close relationship with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose tabloid the Sun famously switched its long-standing Conservative allegiance to back the Labour party ahead of the 1997 general election.

Business secretary Vince Cable is scheduled to appear on Wednesday. It is likely he will be quizzed about News Corp’s £8bn bid for the takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, particularly his admission that he had “declared war” on the Murdoch-owned company, which led to his being stripped of responsibility for the bid.

But the highlight will surely come from Thursday’s sole witness, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is fighting for his political life after the revelation of a November 2010 memo he sent to David Cameron in support of News Corp’s £8bn bid for control of the satellite broadcaster one month before he was handed the task of adjudicating the bid.

In the memo Hunt emphasised to Cameron that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, and that Cable’s decision to refer the bid to regulator Ofcom could leave the government “on the wrong side of media policy”.

The memo has further weakened Hunt’s grip on power, already in doubt after last month’s revelations that his department gave News Corp advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the BSkyB bid. Evidence shown to the Inquiry yesterday during News Corp lobbyist Frédéric Michel‘s appearance showed over than 1000 text messages had been sent between the corporation and Hunt’s department, along with 191 phone calls and 158 emails.

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, while David Cameron said today he does not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

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.


Leveson tells MPs to back off

Lord Justice Leveson has asked MPs not to interfere with his Inquiry, as he indicated he would take evidence from Adam Smith, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser, and News Corp PR chief Frederic Michel.

Leveson went through a lengthy reading of yesterday’s Hansard transcript, replying to the points of order raised in the House of Commons by Labour MPs who asked for Hunt to provide relevant material to the House before giving evidence to the Inquiry.

He responded firmly that this would “undermine the fairness of the procedure”, though he acknowledged he could not he could not stop Parliament from addressing such matters.

Smith resigned last month when it emerged in correspondence between Michel and Hunt’s office that News Corp was being given advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the BSkyB bid at a time when the media corporation was mounting a takeover bid of the satellite broadcaster. News Corp eventually abandoned the takeover bid in July 2011 in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

The opposition has insisted that Hunt broke the ministerial code for failing to supervise Smith, a claim that Hunt, who has come under increasing fire for the liaisons between his office and News Corp, has denied.

Leveson stressed his determination to remain above party politics and that it was crucial to hear “every side of the story” before drawing conclusions. He repeated his stance that it was not up to him to adjudicate whether or not the House had been misled.

Hunt is also due to appear the Inquiry, which is currently examining relationships between the British press and politicians, before the end of the month.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

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.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson