By Andrew Barr
It has been confirmed that UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was in direct contact with James Murdoch on the day he took over quasi-judicial responsibility for the News Corporation BSkyB takeover bid.
The Leveson Inquiry heard that only hours before Mr Hunt was asked to oversee News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB , he had sent a congratulatory text to News Corp executive James Murdoch.
The culture secretary told the Inquiry that he was “sympathetic” of the Murdoch bid, but that he would “hesitate slightly on the word supportive”.
Downing Street has refused to refer Mr Hunt’s case to the adviser on the ministerial code, and have said that they believed he had acted properly in his dealings with News Corp.
On the 3rd of March 2011, when Jeremy Hunt announced he was “minded” to approve News Corp’s bid, he received a text from James Murdoch which read: “Big few days. Well played JRM.”
“Thanks think we got right solution!” replied Mr Hunt.
Later that month, when Mr Hunt heard that James Murdoch had been promoted to News Corp deputy chief operating officer and would therefore be relocating to New York, Hunt texted: “Many congratulations on the promotion although I am sure u will really miss Ofcom in NY! Jeremy”.
Murdoch replied: “Thanks Jeremy – sadly I fear they won’t see the back of me that easily! Hopefully we can move our other business forward soon so we can catch up properly. Best.”
Mr Hunt had been appointed to oversee the BSkyB bid in December 2010 after Vince Cable was removed from the position after claiming to have “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch.
The culture secretary said that he would not have sent a congratulatory text to Mr Murdoch which said “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go” if he had known he would be given the position later that day.
The Leveson Inquiry heard that Mr Hunt had considered resigning but that it “wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to step down when the bid had been conducted “scrupulously fairly”. He said that with hindsight, he would probably avoid text messaging, and that his correspondence with Mr Murdoch was only “courteous”.
Mr Hunt’s political adviser, Adam Smith, had previously resigned his post after exchanging hundreds of emails and texts with News Corp lobbyist, Fred Michel, and admitting that the volume of correspondence was inappropriate.
Labour are now calling for the culture secretary himself to stand down, claiming he had misled the House of Commons and that he was in breach of the code for a lack of supervision over his adviser Mr Smith.
The culture secretary claimed not to have given any “express instructions” to Mr Smith about dealing with News Corp, but that he was regarded as a “point of contact” for correspondence.
For now at least it seems Jeremy Hunt’s position as the culture secretary and his place in government is withstanding the Leveson Inquiry.