CULTURE Secretary Jeremy Hunt has come under renewed pressure following the publication by the Leveson Inquiry of a memo in which he made private representations to the Prime Minister supporting News Corporation’s bid to take over BSkyB.
The document, sent just weeks before Mr Hunt was given quasi-judicial oversight of the bid, warned that News Corp’s James Murdoch was “furious” about Business Secretary Vince Cable’s handling of the matter.
Dated 19 November 2010, the note to David Cameron expressed concerns that referring the bid to Ofcom could leave the Government “on the wrong side of media policy”.
But Downing Street played down its significance, pointing out that Mr Hunt had already made supportive comments about the bid in press interviews earlier that year.
A Number 10 spokesman said: “Jeremy Hunt’s note is entirely consistent with his public statements on the BSkyB bid prior to taking on the quasi-judicial role.
“It also makes clear that ‘it would be totally wrong for the Government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm’s length’.
“The PM has made clear throughout that he recused himself from decisions relating to BSkyB and did not seek to influence the process in any way.”
A source close to Mr Hunt also said there was nothing in the memo that suggested he should not have been given the quasi-judicial function when it was stripped from Mr Cable in December 2010.
“Jeremy is clear in the memo, as he was throughout the bid process, that it should only go ahead if it addressed the plurality concerns,” said the source.
The dramatic disclosure of the memo came as Mr Hunt’s former special adviser, Adam Smith, gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry into media standards.
Mr Smith, who quit last month after admitting his contacts with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel had become too close, insisted he had not been given any specific instructions by Mr Hunt or civil servants on his role in the quasi-judicial decision on BSkyB.
He said he had assumed he should be “managing relationships” with interested parties – but conceded that his only communications were with News Corp.
Mr Hunt wrote his “fortnightly update” for the premier a few days after speaking by phone with James Murdoch about Mr Cable’s decision to call in communications regulator Ofcom to look at the News Corp bid to buy the 61 per cent of the satellite broadcaster which it did not already own.
“James Murdoch is pretty furious at Vince’s referral to Ofcom. He does not think he will get a fair hearing from Ofcom,” wrote the Culture Secretary.
“I am particularly concerned about this because News Corp are very litigious and we could end up in the wrong place in terms of media policy.
“Essentially what James Murdoch wants to do is repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world’s first multi-platform media operation available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad.
“Isn’t that what all media companies have to do ultimately? If so, we must be very careful that any attempt to block it must be done on genuine plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors.”
Mr Hunt went on: “The UK has the chance to lead the way on this as we did in the ‘80s with the Wapping move, but if we block it, our media sector will suffer for years.
“In the end I am sure sensible controls can be put into any merger to ensure there is plurality.
“But I think it would be totally wrong to cave in to the Mark Thompson/C4/Guardian line that this represents a change of control.”