PRESSURE was mounting on Jeremy Hunt on Friday night amid claims that he colluded with Rupert Murdoch’s empire in a bid to prevent a public inquiry into phone hacking.
A revealing e-mail suggested that the embattled Culture Secretary wanted News Corporation to “guide his and Number 10s thinking” on the scandal at a time when the firm was hoping to take over BSkyB.
The e-mail sent by the News Corporation public affairs executive Fred Michel was produced by the former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks during a colourful appearance in the Leveson Inquiry witness box.
The existence of Mr Michel’s e-mail, which has not been seen before and was sent to Mrs Brooks on 27 June 2011, raised serious questions about the closeness of David Cameron’s government to the Murdoch empire.
The e-mail revealed that Mrs Brooks was told by Mr Michel that Mr Hunt was about to make an “extremely helpful” statement about their company’s £8 billion bid for BSkyB.
Mr Michel suggested the Culture Secretary would give the go-ahead to the takeover because he believed “phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues” that had concerned rivals. Mr Hunt approved the bid in principle a few days later on 30 June.
Mr Michel’s e-mail said: “Hunt will be making references to phone hacking in his statement on Rubicon (the codename for the BSkyB bid) this week.
“He will be repeating the same narrative as the one he gave in Parliament few weeks ago. This is based on his belief that the police is pursing things thoroughly and phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues. It’s extremely helpful.”
The e-mail also suggested the Culture Secretary was seeking advice on how to tackle the growing phone-hacking controversy.
The e-mail said: “He (Hunt) wants to prevent a public inquiry. For this the committee will need to come up a strong report in the autumn and put enough pressure on the PCC to strength itself and take recommendations forward.
“JH is now starting to looking to phone hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning.”
In his statement to parliament approving the BSkyB bid Mr Hunt appeared to back up some of the contents of his e-mail arguing that “while the phone-hacking allegations are very serious they were not material to my consideration”.
Everything was to change a week later when it came to light that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been targeted by the News of the World – a revelation that caused widespread revulsion and saw News Corp drop its bid for BSkyB.
On Friday night, the government attempted to minimise the damage caused by the e-mail, claiming that Mr Michel had said before that he was not speaking to Mr Hunt, but to his special adviser, Adam Smith – who has since quit.
“It’s widely acknowledged that he has exaggerated,” Mr Hunt’s spokeswoman said.
She said Mr Hunt would respond to all e-mails and any other allegations when he gives evidence at the Leveson Inquiry in the next few weeks.
Downing Street has said there are “no plans” to investigate whether Mr Hunt has broken the ministerial code, with Mr Cameron saying Mr Hunt had acted properly and that it was a matter for the Leveson Inquiry.
But Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, said: “People will be disgusted at the prospect of Jeremy Hunt and Number 10 colluding with News Corporation to avoid a public inquiry into phone hacking. Jeremy Hunt was not on the side of victims and their families. Instead, he wanted it swept under the carpet because he was straining every sinew to support News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB.”
In another potentially damaging revelation, Mrs Brooks admitted that she had discussed the BSkyB bid with Mr Cameron at a dinner at her home in December 2010.
She also had a “three-minute conversation” on the topic with Chancellor George Osborne at dinner in December 2010. The following day Mrs Brooks e-mailed Mr Michel saying that Mr Osborne had expressed “total bafflement” at Ofcom’s latest response to the bid.
“It was an entirely appropriate conversation,” she insisted. “They were all saying the same thing – ‘it is not my decision’.”
The e-mail was the most explosive item to emerge during a colourful session that shed much light on the close relationships that Mrs Brooks enjoyed with prime ministers, their wives and other leading politicians.
In an embarrassing moment for the Prime Minister, Mrs Brooks revealed that Mr Cameron signed off his texts to her “Lol”, which he believed stood for “lots of love”. He stopped using that abbreviation when Mrs Brooks informed him that in text-speak “Lol” stood for “laugh out loud”.
She disclosed that the Prime Minister sent a message urging her to “keep your head up” when she resigned over the phone-hacking scandal and expressed regret that he could not be more loyal. She also received messages from Number 11 and Tony Blair – but not Gordon Brown with whom she had fallen out with after the Sun stopped backing Labour.
The inquiry also shed light on her work as a journalist. Mrs Brooks denied that medical records were hacked into to provide details of a Sun story disclosing that Mr Brown’s son Fraser had cystic fibrosis.
Instead, she said the information came from a source connected to a charity for the condition and said she had the Browns’ permission to run the article – a stance that was disputed by the former Prime Minister.
In a statement Mr and Mrs Brown expressed concern that it was still unclear how the Sun obtained details of their son’s medical condition.
“The idea that we would have volunteered our permission or were happy that a story about our son’s health was about to enter the public domain is untrue,” they said.
“We remain concerned that there is no satisfactory explanation of how private medical information, known to very few people, got into the hands of the Sun and the possible payments involved.”
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