Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt sent a “great news” message to James Murdoch on the day he was given responsibility for media competition issues, he told the inquiry into press standards today.
Details of the text – sent shortly before 1pm on December 21 2010 – emerged as Hunt gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry in London today.
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The message was one of a number sent by Hunt to Murdoch, inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson heard.
It read: “Great news on Brussels just Ofcom to go.”
Downing Street announced that responsibility for media competition and policy issues was passing to Hunt shortly before 6pm on December 21.
Hunt was asked by the barrister representing Lord Justice Leveson if he would have sent the text at 4.58pm on that day.
He replied: “No, I don’t think I would.”
Prime Minister David Cameron ruled that responsibility for media policy and competition would pass to Hunt from Business Secretary Vince Cable.
He made the move after Cable claimed to have “declared war” on the News Corporation media empire run by James Murdoch’s father Rupert.
The Prime Minister ruled that Cable would play no further role in News Corp‘s bid to take a majority stake in broadcaster BSkyB.
The inquiry saw a slew of messages sent by Hunt shortly after Cable’s comments to undercover reporters that he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch became public.
In the immediate aftermath, and before it was announced that responsibility for the bid would be passed to Hunt, he also swapped text messages with Chancellor George Osborne.
Timed at 4.08pm, the Culture Secretary’s message to Osborne read: “Could we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? I am seriously worried we are going to screw this up. Jeremy.”
He immediately sent a second, saying: “Just been called by James M. His lawyers are meeting now and saying it calls into question legitimacy of whole process from beginning. ‘acute bias’ etc.”
A couple of minutes later, Hunt sent an email to Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor at that time working as Prime Minister David Cameron’s director of communications.
“Could we chat about this?”, he wrote. “I am seriously worried Vince Cable will do real damage to coalition with his comments.”
At 4.58pm, with the formal appointment of Hunt to take over examination of the takeover bid to be announced within the hour, the Chancellor replied by text to Hunt: “I hope you like the solution.”
‘I was sympathetic to the bid. I hesitate to say supportive.’
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 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.
Mr 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”.
‘Degree of pushiness’ about Michel
Hunt said claims made on July 4 that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World made him question the News Corp bid.
In the days after the allegations the Murdoch empire announced it was shutting down the Sunday newspaper.
“That, for me, was a very significant moment because then I began to wonder whether there could be an issue that spread beyond News International to News Corporation,” he told the inquiry.
“I asked myself, if they found it necessary to close down a whole newspaper, this is a big big decision for News Corporation, is there a corporate governance issue here?”
“Is this a company that doesn’t actually have control over what is going on in its own company?”
Hunt said there was a “degree of pushiness” about Mr Michel that meant he began to limit his replies to text messages to one word.
The Inquiry heard he “didn’t predict this barrage of contact” from the New Corp lobbyist.
Michel sent 542 text messages to Smith, which Hunt said worked out to around five a day.
“We didn’t anticipate that at all,” he added.
The Culture Secretary insisted he had put aside his “private view” about the News Corp bid once he took over government responsibility for it on December 21, 2010.
“I knew I couldn’t make this decision on the basis of that private view,” he added.
In January 2011 News Corp put together a proposal that would take Sky News out of the deal to appease claims it would have too much control over the UK news media.
That was a “pretty big offer” that Government should consider, Hunt said.
But he made James Murdoch “very cross” when he decided that he would get advice from two regulators, instead of one, he told the Inquiry.
“From Mr Murdoch’s point of view he considered that was tantamount to wanting to kill the deal,” he added.
The Culture Secretary said Smith was acting “entirely within his authority” in talking about target dates for the completion of the process with Michel.
An email from the lobbyist warned that it would be “catastrophic for many important reasons” if a decision was delayed and another said it was “in everyone’s interests” for it to be concluded by June 24.
Hunt said that was “absolutely a legitimate part of the process” and he was not surprised that Smith did not talk to him about that level of detail.
“He is a very uncomplaining, decent, hard-working person. He saw his job as being a buffer for me, a buffer to absorb that pressure,” he said.
While in hindsight it appeared clear that the rush was because of News International’s mounting concerns about the impact of the phone hacking scandal, Hunt said, he would not have expected Mr Smith to have questioned at the time what the “catastrophic” consequences would be.
“I would be very surprised if Mr Smith had any idea whatever what these Delphic reasons may be,” he said.
“He would look at this and say it’s just another example of News International trying to pile on the pressure.
“As a company, they want everything done at the speed of light. I do not remember it being raised with me as a specific issue that needed to be addressed.”
In a separate email, written by Hunt to his adviser as further restrictions were agreed by News Corp as part of the takeover, he said: “These new UIL (undertakings in lieu) are pretty thorough.
“Feels like the world does not trust the Murdochs further than they can be thrown.”
Hunt denied suggestions by Jay that he took steps which angered Murdoch to show a publicly independent face while working behind the scenes to make sure the bid succeeded.
“We pushed the boat off the pier but we did not know where the boat was going to end up.”