Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt Emails Show Close Contact With BSkyB

Posted: 24/04/2012 21:18 Updated: 24/04/2012 23:19

Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt is referred to in many BSkyB email exchanges

The close contacts between culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp empire over the company's controversial takeover bid for BSkyB are set out in a 163-page dossier of emails and texts released by the Leveson Inquiry.

The key figure is News Corp's senior vice-president of government affairs and public policy, Europe, Frederic Michel, who appeared to be the company's key point of contact with Mr Hunt and his team.

Although they refer repeatedly to contacts with Mr Hunt - JH - Mr Michel insisted in a statement this was often shorthand for the culture secretary's office - most often his special adviser Adam Smith, the Press Association reported.

The contacts date back to 2010 - before Mr Hunt had responsibility for the BSkyB bid when it was still being dealt with by business secretary Vince Cable.

In June 2010, he recounts to News Corp executives a call from an adviser to Mr Hunt saying the culture secretary "believed the UK government would be supportive throughout the process".

On the same day, he described a "Vince Cable call" that "went very well" and adding: "We should have recorded him!"

On 5 October, Mr Michel related how "(News International chief executive) Rebekah (Brooks) and I had a very useful meeting with Jeremy Hunt today on the bid".

The contacts intensify after Mr Cable was stripped of his responsibilities for the bid after he was recorded by undercover reporters saying he had "declared war" on the Murdoch empire and they were passed to Mr Hunt.

On 9 January Mr Michel sent a text to Mr Smith stating: "Bad news from Ofcom. We need to talk."

Mr Smith promises to call him back. That evening Mr Michel sent an email to Mr Murdoch stating: "I have managed to get JH quickly before he went in to see Swan Lake...and have further chat."

The following day Mr Michel sent an email to News Corp executives headed "Re: Spoke to Hunt" which refers to a conversation between the culture secretary and the head of Ofcom Ed Richards.

"He made again a plea to try to find as many legal errors as we can in the Ofcom report and propose some strong and 'impactful' remedies," Mr Michel said. "He is keen to meet next Tuesday or Wednesday to discuss our submission."

On 23 January - two days before Mr Hunt issued a written statement to Parliament - Mr Michel wrote to News Corp executives, stating: "His view is that once he announces publicly he has a strong UIL (an undertaking in lieu from News Corp), it's almost game over for the opposition."

The following day Mr Michel wrote to Mr Murdoch: "Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal..>!)"

The day of the statement setting out the way forward on the BSkyB bid - 25 January - was marked by a flurry of emails.

Mr Smith wrote to Mr Michel stating: "There's plenty potential to mitigate problems! We can't say they are too brilliant otherwise people will call for them to be published. Will check on meetings."

Mr Michel then wrote to Mr Murdoch: "JH just said there was plenty of support for the remedy in the statement - 'potential to mitigate problems' ... he can't say they are too brilliant otherwise people will call for them to be published."

Mr Smith then sent a further email to Mr Michel saying: "Other than what Jeremy and I have told you! We have no legal wriggle room in a statement to parliament."

Mr Michel emailed Mr Murdoch: "Just had a chat with JH ... he said he had no legal wriggle room in a statement to Parliament; that's it all exactly as he said yesterday."

That night Mr Michel wrote to Mr Smith: "I think we're in a good place tonight no?" Mr Smith replied: "I agree. Coverage looks ok. Let's look again in the morning though!"

On 4 February, Mr Smith appeared to offer to show Mr Michel confidential documents relating to the bid, warning him not to let the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) know.

Mr Michel emailed Mr Smith asking: "Are you able to send me the Enders and Slaughter docs? Wd help me prepare for the public debate. Enjoy golf."

Mr Smith replied: "I haven't actually got them at the moment. Officials just told me about them. Don't mention them to anyone like oft etc. if we need them I'll show you."

On 9 February, Mr Smith wrote again, joking: "Take your stab proof vest with you! Am hoping for an update later on process so will let you know if anything new."

Two days later Mr Michel reported that he had received details of the submissions Mr Hunt was expecting to receive from Ofcom and the OFT.

"JH called: he now knows what Ofcom and OFT will send him tonight: both will recommend he refers to CC (Competition Commission)," he wrote.

"JH doesn't want this to go to the CC. He also said his officials don't want this to go further as JH believes it would kill the deal. He also knows that Ofcom is taking a very subjective and non-legal approach on the chairman issue and understands the very serious/personal nature of it for us."

On 24 February, Mr Smith warned Mr Michel that the government would have to follow Ofcom's advice.

He added however: "We can't interfere with the process really. We can give more time but not deal with substance whilst they are working with you."

Mr Michel emailed Mr Murdoch: "JH just texted that he can't interfere with the process but can give us more time to sort things out. He can't engage with substance whilst Ofcom is working with us."

On 31 March, Mr Michel said he has "just spoke to JH", who apparently told him there were "absolutely no issues of substance in the submissions and he is now looking at clearing it asap".

He said that he was also told about a meeting between Mr Hunt with "the media coalition" of news organisations opposed to the bid.

"In a nutshell: they looked miserable, were making competition arguments and know they have lost the battle."

On 2 June, Mr Smith told Mr Michel: "Over the last few days i hve been causing a lot of chaos and moaning from people here on your behalf. I should have an update later today."

The following day, less than a month before the government said it was ready to give the deal clearance, Mr Michel said he had been assured that Mr Hunt was "politically very keen to get this done as quickly as possible and understands the potential impact this will have on the share price".

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Filed by David Hobbs  |