The political scandal over Rupert Murdoch’s battle to buy BSkyB moved closer to David Cameron last night after new evidence undermined the Prime Minister’s claim that his Government was scrupulously even-handed in deciding on the £8bn deal.
A damning memo, released by the Leveson Inquiry, revealed for the first time that Mr Cameron already knew his Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was in favour of the bid, before he handed him quasi-judicial power to rule on it.
In the private message to the Prime Minister, Mr Hunt told Mr Cameron of James Murdoch’s fury at his treatment, and stressed the importance of the deal going through. Only a month later, and despite knowing Mr Hunt’s views, Mr Cameron handed him responsibility for making the decision on the bid. At the time he was under pressure from the Liberal Democrats to hand the decision over to a more impartial figure, such as the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.
Importantly, the memo was also never seen by the then Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, who later assured critics that Mr Hunt’s past statements did “not amount to a pre-judgement of the case in question”. Mr Cameron has previously said he had “nothing to do” with the specifics of the bid, and is now likely to be questioned on this when he appears before the inquiry.
In a day of new revelations at the Leveson Inquiry, which heard evidence from both Mr Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith and the News Corp lobbyist Fréd Michel, it emerged that:
* Mr Hunt may have misled Parliament over a statement he made claiming he had had no contact with Mr Michel other than official meetings. Messages released by the inquiry revealed he had texted him on at least three occasions, including one which read: “When consultation over we can have coffee like the old days.”
* More than 1,000 text messages were exchanged between News Corp and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport during the bid process, including 257 from Mr Smith to Mr Michel.
* Mr Michel admitted Mr Smith had given him regular updates on the “timings” and “process” of the bid, but said this did not amount to a “running commentary” of the Government’s thinking.
But the most damaging revelation was the emergence of the memo from Mr Hunt to the Prime Minister on 19 November 2010, in which he made clear his support for the Murdoch empire’s ambition to take full control of BSkyB. It also suggests Mr Hunt was aware News Corp was plotting a “Wapping mark 2” by uniting UK print, internet and TV interests – potentially fatally undermining its competitors. In it he wrote: “Essentially what James Murdoch wants to do is to repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world’s first multiplatform media operator available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad.”
He added: “It would be totally wrong to cave into the Mark Thompson [BBC Director General]/Channel 4/Guardian line that this represents a substantial change of control given that we all know Sky is controlled by News Corp now anyway.”
Last night Downing Street pointed out that Mr Hunt had previously made clear in public that in principle he had no problem with the bid. “Jeremy Hunt’s note is entirely consistent with his public statements on the BSkyB bid prior to taking on the quasi-judicial role,” said a spokesman. “It also makes clear that ‘it would be totally wrong for the Government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm’s length’. The PM has made clear throughout that he recused himself from decisions relating to BSkyB and did not seek to influence the process in any way.”
However, Labour said that by trying to arrange a meeting to discuss the bid, Mr Hunt had undermined his assertion in the Commons that: “I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business.” This was denied by sources close to the Culture Secretary. Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “It is clear… that David Cameron gave responsibility to Jeremy Hunt for deciding on the BSkyB bid when he knew only too well that the Culture Secretary was actively supporting the bid.”
Hey folks, how desperate is David Cameron it now transpire that in November 2010, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt sent a memo to David Cameron expressing support for the BSkyB bid. At the time, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, had just announced his intention to refer the takeover to Ofcom. In the memo, Mr Hunt expressed the force of James Murdoch’s anger at the decision.
Mr Hunt also warned of a possible legal challenge by Rupert Murdoch’s company – and said the deal would be bad for business. Mr Hunt suggested that “sensible controls” could be put in place to ensure that News Corp did not become too dominant. After Mr Cable was secretly recorded saying he had “declared war” on the Murdochs and was stripped of responsibility for the decision, Mr Cameron handed it to Mr Hunt. It shows the Prime Minister handed the decision on a multibillion-pound deal, by a company whose newspapers had switched their support to him a year before, to a man he knew supported it. Despite claiming the decision was “quasi-judicial”, it now looks like it was a stitch-up to help the ruling party’s friends.
I have to admire Senior Labour MP Chris Bryant who accused Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s office of committing “a criminal offence” if it passed information to News International relating to its bid to control BSkyB.
Mr Bryant claimed that News International had information about what Mr Hunt was going to say about BSkyB before he said it and also before commercial operators did.
“That’s a criminal offence, a straight-forward criminal offence,” the Labour MP for Rhondda said.
Labour has called for Mr Hunt to be sacked in the wake of the publication by the Leveson Inquiry of emails between News International lobbyist Fred Michel and Mr Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith, who quit his post after the revelations last month.
The email has led to claims he colluded with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire to prevent a public inquiry into phone hacking, with Mr Michel stating that the Culture Secretary wanted the firm to “guide his and Number 10’s positioning” on the scandal.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “One of the reasons so many people hate politics so much right now is that they think politicians stand up for the wrong people, not the right people.
“This is a clear example of that — Jeremy Hunt was standing up for Rupert Murdoch, not for the public interest.”
A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesman said: “Jeremy Hunt will respond fully to all allegations on his conduct when he gives his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in due course.
“It has already been made clear that when Fred Michel has claimed in emails to be speaking to Jeremy Hunt, that was not the case.”