Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Monday, 28 May 2012

Leveson Inquiry: Jeremy Hunt's impartiality and NewsCorp's BSkyB bid

Jeremy Hunt (c) Surian Soosay
Following Adam Smith's and Fred Michel's statements at the Leveson Inquiry on Thursday and Friday, media speculation has focused on the impartiality of the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt - I will do my best not to do a Naughtie.

Prior to his quasi-judicial appointment on 22nd December 2010, the media, including the BBCrefer to a memo that Hunt sent to the Prime Minister, David Cameron on 19 November 2010. Hunt was concerned that the UK media “would suffer for years” if the BSKyB deal failed to go through.

Yetthe media have missed other equally telling comments from this memo:

James Murdoch is pretty furious at Vince's referral to Ofcom. He doesn't think that he will get a fair hearing from Ofcom. I am privately concerned about this because NewsCorp are very litigious and we couldend up in the wrong place in terms of media policy”.

Just why would Murdoch not think that he will get a fair hearing from Ofcom? Evidence suggests that he did, and that the deal would have gone through. That Hunt was “privately concerned” about this referral suggests that he shared Murdoch's disquiet. Impartial?

Interestingly, the above is an edited version of an earlier round-up which argues NewsCorp's case as follows:

Those people who are arguing that the Murdochs will have too much influence are in my view confusing the revenues Sky gets (around £8 bn) which are much higher than – say – the BBC's £4 bn with the influence Sky has editorially which is much less because a) most of the channels watched on Sky belong to other people over which it exerts no editorial control; and b) where it does (e.g. Sky news), it has less than 5% market share and is bound by strict rules over political impartiality. (stress as per original draft)

Whilst Hunt decided to omit this information from his final memo, it alerts us to the information that he/his office had to hand. Evidence for the BSkyB bid.

Evidence which came directly from Fred Michel. On 7thOctober 2010, texts between Michel and Hunt reveal that Hunt was happy to receive NewsCorp's briefing on plurality from Michel, which he then emailed to AdamSmith, then Hunt's special adviser.

The Three Amigos/Parties to Unite over BSkyB Bid Call (c) Surian Soosay
Returning from the weekend, Smith emailed Michel with Hunt's view of the arguments for the BskyB takeover, "Jeremy's response to this - “persuasive”. Impartial?

Counsel to the Inquiry, Robert Jay QC, put this to Smith:

...”But aren't these pretty clear indicators of what Mr Hunt's view was, at least on the materials which were being provided as to the quality of the bid, and its desirability”?

To which, Smith replied:

Well, I think it chimes with what he said about he didn't think there was a particular problem, but he wouldn't second guess the regulators. I don't think that is any different meaning”.

Let us remember at this point that Hunt and his department had nothing to do with this particular decision. This still lay with then business secretary, Vince Cable, who was later removed for declaring war on Murdoch.

Why were Hunt, and his office, even in receipt of these particular NewsCorp briefings, let alone reading and commenting on it? Leveson queried Smith on this issue:

What has this got to do with you? I mean, I'm just intrigued to know why you should be involved in this material. This was being dealt with by another department. I can't believe you didn't have more than enough to do. So what has this to do with you”?

Smith replied:

Well, it was a big issue in the media sector and I think Mr Michel had offered to send something through to me and I would always receive anything that anybody wanted to send through to me”.

For Leveson, who failed to follow this up any further, Hunt, and his office, just wanted to know where people stood. Yet this completely neglects the amount of work, as Leveson mentions, that Hunt and his team were putting in to a bid that had nothing to do with them.Especially at a time when Hunt would have been busy reorganising his department following the comprehensive spending review. Is Smith's explanation credibile?

On 16thNovember 2010, Michel texted Hunt, Thanks for the call with James today. Greatly appreciated. Will work with Adam to make sure we can send you helpful arguments”...

Helpful arguments? For whom? About what?

The helpful arguments are relating to the BSkyB bid, aren't they”,asked Robert Jay QC of Fred Michel, who responded, “I don't know. I can't remember.”

Son of a Murdoch (c) Surian Soosay
Anything else it might have been for? Unlikely, given that we know that just a couple of days later Hunt was telling Cameron that Murdoch was furious about Cable referring the bid to Ofcom.

Neither Leveson nor Jay questioned Smith about these “helpful arguments”, despite (Adam) Smith's name appearing in the text. Why not?

What went on before Hunt was appointed quasi-judge and jury illustrates an unhealthily close relationship with NewsCorp. More investigative questioning may have revealed further details, but it may be that Hunt will face more searching questions on Thursday.

Just as importantly, let us not forget that it was Cameron who appointed Hunt. His choices of personnel and champions, from AndyCoulson to EmmaHarrison, have been ill-advised.

Cameron knew that Hunt held meetings with NewsCorp in the U.S. in August 2009. Speculation has mounted that talks of the BSkyB bid first emerged during this trip, but Hunt claims that no such discussions took place“to the best of his recognition” - is that a bit of legalese? Either way, within a week of this visit, The Sun (one of Murdoch's newspapers) had declared its support for Cameron for the 2010 election.

Cameron also knew from Hunt's memo to him of 19th November that he was worried about the prospect of a failed BSkyBbid. Just what questions did Cameron ask of Hunt and his connections, and contact, with NewsCorp before appointing him?

In fact, was it even in Cameron's interests to ask?

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