Jeremy Hunt sought to persuade parliament on Wednesday that he had a full defence to the charge that he behaved improperly and showed bias in favour of Rupert Murdoch during the BSkyB takeover bid. He said it was “categorically not the case” that 160 pages of emails from News Corp lobbyist Frédéric Michel showed that the company enjoyed a “back channel” that it had used to influence his decision. How do his claims compare with the facts?
“I have strictly followed due process, seeking the advice of independent regulators and after careful consideration acting on their advice.”
When Hunt was placed in charge at the end of 2010, the initial advice he received from Ofcom was simply that he should refer the bid to the Competition Commission. He refused to do so.
Ofcom had said: “We believe there is, therefore, a need for a fuller second stage review of these issues by the Competition Commission to assess the extent to which the concentration in media ownership may act against the public interest, and we advise the secretary of state accordingly.”
But according to Michel’s emails, Hunt’s political adviser, Adam Smith, told News Corp: “JH doesn’t want this to go to the CC … JH believes it would kill the deal.”
“I made four decisions in this process, and each of those decisions was contrary to what News Corporation wanted.
“The first decision I made was that I was minded to refer the bid to the Competition Commission … I then had an obligation to consider undertakings in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission, and I made my second decision, which was that I would not accept those undertakings until I had received and considered the advice of Ofcom and the OFT.
“The third decision that I made was to extend the period of consultation – and to insist again that Ofcom and the OFT must have full sight of the undertakings, that I would see their advice, and in practice I followed their advice.
“My final decision was made at the time of the Milly Dowler revelations. At that stage, I wrote to Ofcom and asked it whether those allegations should have any impact on my decision.”
Hunt’s “first decision” was in reality the exact opposite of the way he presented it. While appearing to take Ofcom’s advice by saying he was “minded to refer” the bid to the Competition Commission, he went on to say that he would not in fact do so if News Corp offered suitable undertakings. At the same time, the Michel emails show his team was encouraging News Corp to “try and find as many legal errors as we can in the Ofcom report”, and inviting Michel to collaborate on a statement he would release.
His second and third decisions – that he would bring in Ofcom for advice and allow an extended time for consultations – were, his adviser explained to James Murdoch, merely a means of gaining political cover and avoiding a lawsuit. To avoid losing a judicial review, he had to give the appearance of not acting unreasonably.
As Michel reported to his boss on 23 January: “[Hunt] very specifically said he was keen to get to the same outcome and wanted JRM to understand he needs to build some political cover.”
According to the emails now revealed, it was not Hunt who demanded all the concessions that irritated James Murdoch – it was Ofcom.
Hunt’s fourth decision – to toss the ball back to Ofcom – was merely because the outcry of revulsion over the Milly Dowler hacking scandal was so great by last July that he could not have survived if he insisted on rubber-stamping News Corp’s bid. It was clearly an act of political self-preservation from what he was said in the emails to have referred to as “massive heat”. In fact, as late as 7 July, four days before the bid was abandoned, Michel was still reassuring James Murdoch: “The closure of NOW does not affect JH decision and if anything helps the media plurality issue by weakening our voice.”
“The contact that I had with Fred Michel was only at official meetings that were minuted with other people present. The fact is that there is a whole pile of emails – 54 in total – in which he talks about having contact with me, but that simply did not happen … Just one of the slightly curious emails that Fred Michel sent suggested that he had called me just before I went to see Swan Lake; I actually went to see it five days later.”
Conservative backbenchers were lined up on Wednesday to suggest that Michel was some kind of Walter Mitty fantasist who hugely exaggerated his access to Hunt and his team in order to give James Murdoch what he wanted. But neither Hunt nor his political adviser Smith, who passed on much of the information, made any attempt at denial of the actual contents of the emails.
They merely sniped that Michel had over-egged the personal nature of his link to Hunt and had got the date of Swan Lake wrong.
In fact an analysis of text messages and emails between Michel and Smith – and those subsequently sent from Michel to James Murdoch and other News Corp top brass relaying Smith’s remarks – show that Michel was largely passing on an accurate summary of the intelligence he was getting from Hunt’s camp.
Hunt has not attempted to deny that he made a mobile phone call to James Murdoch in 10 November after cancelling a meeting with Murdoch because he had received legal advice that it would be inappropriate to see him.
“I accept, and my adviser accepts, that those communications overstepped the mark … I knew that Adam Smith was authorised to be one of a number of contact points within my department, but having seen those communications it is clear that the volume and content was inappropriate.”
Hunt has now in effect dropped any earlier claim that Michel was fabricating the existence of an improper back channel with News Corp. Instead, he has tacitly accepted one was in operation, and blamed his aide for acting in an “unauthorised way”. Smith has resigned.
But this does not appear to let Hunt off the hook. The ministerial code says that Hunt carries the responsibility for any misconduct by his political aide.
“The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the minister who made the appointment,” it says.
“They should not misuse their official position or information acquired in the course of their official duties to further their private interests or the private interests of others. Special advisers should not, without authority, disclose official information which has been communicated in confidence in government or received in confidence from others.”