Friday 24 November 2017

Hunt defied legal advice and talked to Murdoch over bid

A
morning
jog before
his
testimony
A morning jog before his testimony

Robert Winnett and Rowena Mason

JEREMY Hunt defied legal advice by communicating privately with James Murdoch about the BSkyB takeover bid, the Leveson Inquiry heard yesterday.

Documents before the inquiry showed that the British Culture Secretary sent a series of text messages to the News Corp executive indicating his apparent support for the takeover; at one point congratulating him after the bid was approved by the EU.

He admitted that he continued to communicate privately with Mr Murdoch despite recommendations from his department's lawyers on at least two occasions that he should not express opinions on the controversial £8bn bid (€9.7bn). Despite the admissions, Downing Street yesterday cleared Mr Hunt of any wrongdoing.

Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his confidence in the Secretary of State, who will not be referred to an independent adviser over claims he broke the ministerial code of conduct. Labour reiterated calls for his resignation.

During six hours of cross-examination, Mr Hunt also implicated several other senior government figures.

Documents released yesterday showed that he lobbied colleagues, including the Chancellor and Andy Coulson, over the government's handling of the deal.

George Osborne, who is not scheduled to give oral evidence, was identified as having a key behind-the-scenes role in the decision to pass control of scrutinising the takeover bid from Vince Cable to Mr Hunt.

Support

Yesterday, the inquiry was told that, within days of News Corp launching a bid for full ownership of BSkyB in June 2010, Mr Hunt had spoken of his support for the deal with the 'Financial Times'.

Unlike most other corporate takeovers, media deals still have to be authorised by a minister.

Initially, this decision fell to Mr Cable, who referred the bid to Ofcom, the media regulator.

After Mr Cable made this decision, Mr Hunt wanted to express his opposition to the referral and asked department lawyers to provide advice.

On November 12, 2010, lawyers for the Department for Culture Media told Mr Hunt he should not contact Mr Cable and should not have "any external discussions about the bid".

The Culture Secretary cancelled a meeting with Mr Murdoch, but instead called him.

Just over a month later the bid was cleared by the EC. Mr Hunt texted Mr Murdoch saying: "Great and congrats on Brussels, just Ofcom to go!"

By 2.30pm on the same day, it emerged that Mr Cable had told undercover reporters that he was waging a "war on Murdoch" -- a statement that resulted in him being stripped of responsibility for the key decision.

At 4pm, Mr Hunt spoke to Mr Murdoch and during the conversation the News Corp executive said that he thought the government was showing "acute bias" against the deal.

Within 10 minutes, Mr Hunt privately began communicating details of News Corp's disquiet to some of the most senior figures in the coalition government. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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