An alliance of media groups opposed to News Corporation‘s takeover of BSkyB claim it was blocked from engaging with Jeremy Hunt and his officials for more than three months, and was only granted a single “sham” meeting with the culture secretary three weeks after he had already given his provisional blessing to the £8bn offer.
The treatment of the alliance – a somewhat unlikely united front of Fleet Street rivals, including the publishers of the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Mirror – has been thrown into the spotlight following the revelation earlier this week that Hunt’s office was in regular contact with a News Corp lobbyist while the Sky bid was being scrutinised by his Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Labour has called for Hunt to resign after the Leveson inquiry published more than 160 pages of emails and texts between News Corp’s European public affairs director, Frédéric Michel, and his boss, James Murdoch, detailing apparently extensive contact between the culture secretary’s office and the lobbyist. This occured at a time when Hunt was considering the company’s £8bn bid for the 60.9% of BSkyB it did not already own.
A senior executive involved in the alliance said: “The issue is not if people are lobbying – everyone does – but it is about a level playing field and it is clear from what has emerged that we were treated entirely differently.
“At the time we felt pushed away, held offside, I would go as far as to say we were blocked. We were not getting the access we should have but I’m absolutely astonished at what we now know.”
Hunt has called into question the accuracy of some of the claims made in Michel’s correspondence and in a Commons statement on Wednesday insisted he had acted impartially and was unaware of “the volume and tone” of Smith’s contacts with News Corp.
“The secretary of state has also made clear that he will respond fully to allegations on his conduct and that of the department when he presents evidence to Lord Justice Leveson,” said a spokeswoman for the DCMS. “The secretary of state consulted all parties and gave close consideration to the arguments presented at every stage in reaching his decisions. As he has made clear, he took and followed independent advice from the regulators throughout the process.”
Michel’s correspondence between June 2010 and July 2011, when News Corp abandoned its Sky takeover at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, suggested he had a hotline to Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith. Smith resigned on Wednesday after admitting that his communications with Michel “at times went too far”.
Hunt’s office gave News Corp details of the alliance’s key submission in March 2011, according to Michel’s emails. The submission was the result of almost a year of work put together by law firm Slaughter May, detailing arguments against allowing News Corp to take full control Sky.
Michel was apparently forwarded the document a day before Hunt’s only meeting with the alliance, on 24 March last year, in order to obtain “critical views … to help him forge his arguments“.
The meeting, more than three months after Hunt took control of making the decision on the bid from Cable on December 21 2010, also came more than three weeks after he had already given provisional approval to News Corporation’s proposed deal, provided Sky News was spun off into a separate publicly listed company to assuage concerns over plurality.
“When we walked into the room you could hardly see Hunt in the phalanx of lawyers, staff and advisers – there must have been 12 to 15 of them,” said a source with knowledge of the meeting. “Any question we asked we were told again and again that he couldn’t talk because of commercial sensitivies. The meeting felt like a charade.
“Now it appears that the entire process was a charade. You spend a year of your life over something so important to the industry and it is a sham.”
The alliance officially registered its opposition to the Sky takeover on 8 October 2010 with a letter to business secretary Vince Cable, although members of the group had independently been vociferous in opposing the deal since News Corporation’s bid emerged in June. The alliance included Telegraph Media Group, Trinity Mirror, Daily Mail General Trust, Guardian Media Group and BT. GMG also publishes MediaGuardian.
When Hunt was officially put in charge of making the decision on News Corp’s bid after responsibility was taken away from Cable following his comment to undercover reporters about declaring war on Rupert Murdoch, the culture secretary cancelled a meeting scheduled with the alliance for 22 December deciding that it was “not appropriate”, according to an alliance source.
“From that point on we found it very difficult to find out anything at all – process, timing, let alone a meeting with anyone,” said a second source with knowledge of the alliance’s dealings with Hunt’s department. “We never met an adviser, the only contact was with civil servants and lawyers. The only contact with officials was about timetabling and even that was like pulling teeth. Yet the other side were quite clearly getting privileged access all the way through the process.”
When Hunt was put in charge of the bid, on 21 December, James Murdoch phoned him immediately, as he now admits. After that, direct contact between Hunt, Murdoch and Michel stopped.
However, Smith and Michel continued to have regular contact. According to Michel’s emails, they allegedly discussed how to tackle a negative Ofcom report on plurality issues and the plan to spin off Sky News as a remedy to push the deal through.
An email on 23 January, from Michel to Matthew Anderson, James Murdoch’s most senior PR executive, claimed that Hunt’s office believed the Sky News spinoff meant it was “almost game over for the opposition”.
In another 23 January email to Murdoch, Michel claimed Hunt’s office was “keen for me to work with his team” on a Commons statement the culture secretary was making and to “offer some possible language”.
However, letters to Hunt from the alliance’s lawyers in January and February complaining about the way the process was being handled and issues with fair access were vigorously rebutted.
“The secretary of state is committed to reaching a decision in a fair and even-handed way,” ran a written response by the DCMS to one alliance letter, seen by MediaGuardian.
The response to a second letter to Hunt said that the alliance will have a “full and fair opportunity to comment” on any undertakings that Hunt puts forward in relation to News Corp’s bid.
“It is unclear what the benefit would be of introducing a prior stage of comment for your clients on proposals in relation to which the secretary of state has not reached a view. Proper … and meaningful consultation does not require multiple iterations of comment throughout a decision-making process,” the letter stated.
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