POLITICS

Jeremy Hunt Texted 'Congrats' To James Murdoch Day He Took Charge Of BSkyB Bid

31/05/2012 11:41 BST | Updated 31/05/2012 13:39 BST

Jeremy Hunt sent a text message to James Murdoch congratulating him on the progress of News Corporation's desire to take control of BSkyB on the same day he was appointed to the role of judging the bid.

The Leveson inquiry heard on Thursday that the culture secretary sent a text to Murdoch at 12.57pm on 21 December 2010 saying: "Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go."

The message was in reference to the European Commission's decision that the bid did not breach EU competition rules and that the final hurdle was to get it past the UK media regulator.

On that day business secretary Vince Cable was stripped of the job of impartially adjudicating the bid after he was secretly recorded saying he had declared "war" on Rupert Murdoch.

At around 4pm on that day, after news of Cable's comments became known, Hunt sent a message to George Osborne, he said: "Can we chat about Murdoch’s Sky Bid. I’m seriously worried we might screw this up.

"Just been called by James Murdoch, his lawyers are meeting now and saying it calls into question the legitimacy of the whole process from the beginning. Acute bias."

The chancellor replied at 4.58pm: "I hope you like the solution".

The solution was that Hunt was later that day named as the new secretary of state in charge of judging News Corporation's bid.

Twitter reaction to Hunt at Leveson

Hunt said it was widely known that he was "sympathetic" to News Corp's bid as he had made several public comments expressing that view.

He defended not informing Downing Street that he had text "congats" to James Murdoch the same day as he did not believe it revealed anything "substantively" different than any of his public comments.

However Robert Jay, the QC questioning Hunt at the inquiry, suggested the message revealed that just as Cable had been accused of being biased against Murdoch, Hunt could be seen to be bias in favour.

But Hunt said once he assumed the quasi-judicial role he acted impartially. "You don't appoint a quasi-judicial role with your brain wiped clean."

Hunt said his special adviser Adam Smith, who resigned following revelations of his close contacts with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel during the bid process, had not been given any specific instructions about how to act as the "official point of contact".

"I do not think he was given any express instructions," he told the inquiry, but he had attended meetings that should have left him aware of the requirements of the quasi-judicial process.

"He was present at all the meetings where we had advice from lawyers and officials.

"He heard, as I heard, all the things we needed to be careful about."

Hunt said he believed his six-year professional relationship with Smith was as close or closer than any between a minister and special adviser in Whitehall.

"It was a given that he knew what I thought on certain issues," he said.

But he insisted that he had not considered him to be acting as a spokesman for him in discussions with Mr Michel.

Feedback from Smith was characterised in the lobbyist's emails to his bosses as coming from the Secretary of State himself.

"I did not see Mr Smith as being someone who was telling me what News Corp thought or telling News Corp what I thought," Mr Hunt told the inquiry.

"I saw him as an official point of contact in the process. Someone News Corp could contact if they had concerns."

Asked for his personal opinion of the bid prior to taking responsibility, Hunt said: "I was sympathetic to the bid. I hesitate to say supportive."

But he issued a staunch defence of his ability to "set aside any views you have" in taking the quasi-judicial decisions - and insisted his actions backed that up.

"My suitability for the role is demonstrated by the actions I took when I did take responsibility for the role because I believe I did totally set aside all those sympathies."

He went as far as to "set up a process explicitly to make sure" that happened, he added.

Hunt also defended his continued social contacts with media figures during that period.

"I did not interpret my role to mean all social relations were suspended with everyone associated with the bid," he said, suggesting it was fine to chat to someone he bumped into in a lift or to give a "courteous reply to a text message".

What The Other Witnesses Have Said

Adam Smith: I Did Not Give News Corp 'Inappropriate' Inside Information

DCMS Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens: Hunt Urged Cameron To Back News Corp Bid

Fred Michel: Texts Reveal Close Relationship Between News Corp And Hunt's Office

Ken Clarke: The Press Is More Powerful Than Parliament

Michael Gove: Rupert Murdoch Is A 'Impressive And Significant' Man

Vince Cable: News International Threatened The Lib Dems Over BSkyB

Tony Blair: I Chose Not To Take On The Press