Leveson told Hunt secretly backed News Corp BSkyB bid

  • Labour calls for Culture Secretary to resign
  • Hunt's conduct fell 'woefully short' of the standard expected, claim Labour
  • Bookmakers William Hill, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power suspend bets on Hunt resigning
  • Hunt 'believed the UK government would be supportive throughout the process'
  • Culture Secretary 'confident he followed proper process'

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt secretly backed News Corporation's bid to take over BSkyB and leaked inside information to the media giant, the Leveson Inquiry heard today.

Labour has now called on Hunt to resign - with deputy Labour leader and shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman claiming Hunt's conduct had fallen "woefully short" of the standard expected.

Today the inquiry heard how News Corp's director of public affairs, Frederic Michel, sent a series of emails to James Murdoch and other executives revealing Hunt's thoughts about the progress of the controversial takeover plans.

In one message Michel detailed what the Culture Secretary would say to Parliament the next day, noting that it was "absolutely illegal" for him to obtain the information.

Another email, dating from January last year, reported Hunt's belief that it would be "game over" for opponents of the BSkyB takeover once plans to spin off Sky News into a separately listed company were publicly announced.

"He said we would get there at the end, and he shared our objectives," Michel noted.

The revelations led to a flurry of wagers that Hunt would leave the Cabinet, and bookmakers William Hill, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power all suspended betting on him resigning.

PM backing

David Cameron's official spokesman told reporters that the Prime Minister continued to have full confidence in Hunt following the claims.

Asked whether David Cameron still had full confidence in Hunt, the Prime Minister's official spokesman told reporters at a regular Westminster briefing: "Yes."

The spokesman said that Cameron and Hunt were both present at this morning's Cabinet meeting, and he was not aware of them speaking to one another since the Culture Secretary's contacts with Murdoch were raised at the Leveson Inquiry.

The spokesman added: "I am not going to be commenting on the Leveson Inquiry. It is a judicial inquiry and we have made clear throughout that we won't be providing a running commentary on it. That remains the case."

In a statement in the Commons this afternoon, however, Harman said: "The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport assured the House that in respect of the News Corp bid for BSkyB that he was acting, as Secretary of State, in a quasi-judicial capacity and, above all, in a way that was impartial and fair.

"In view of the evidence that has been adduced before the Leveson Inquiry today it appears that the Secretary of State has fallen woefully short of the standards expected by his office and by the public interest.

"I believe, on a point of order, that the right thing for the Secretary of State to do would be to come to this House to offer an apology and to tender his resignation."

'There shouldn't be media plurality issue'

The emails, which run to 163 pages, show that Murdoch and his adviser appeared to be in regular contact with Hunt's office when the bid was under consideration in the autumn of 2010, which was before he was involved in whether the bid should be approved.

But Hunt was eventually handed that quasi-judicial role in December when business secretary Vince Cable told undercover Daily Telegraph reporters he had 'declared war on Mr Murdoch".

The emails, quoted extensively by the counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC, revealed that shortly after News Corp announced its intention to buy the remaining shares in BSkYB that it did not already own Michel told News Crop that Hunt felt 'there shouldn't be media plurality issue and believed the UK government would be supportive throughout the process".

Counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay, QC, told Murdoch it was "clear that you were receiving information along the lines that the UK government as a whole would be supportive of News Corp". Murdoch replied by saying he did not believe Hunt's behaviour was 'necessarily inappropriate"

Hunt 'confident he followed proper process'

An aide to Hunt said that he "feels completely confident that he followed the proper process" and did not intend to voluntarily make a statement to MPs.

Instead he would respond to all of the points raised at today's hearing when he gives evidence himself to the Leveson Inquiry "in a few weeks' time".

"He is going to give evidence where he will respond to everything that was raised today in a few weeks' time," the aide said.

"He thinks it is appropriate that he goes through the proper channels - that is giving evidence to Leveson."

Asked if that meant he would reject Labour's demands that he appear in the Commons, she said: "If he is called then of course he will."

News Corp had sought to buy the 61% share in BSkyB it did not already own, but dropped the bid on July 13 last year after public outcry over the revelation that the News of the World hacked murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone.

On January 24 last year Michel sent an email to Mr Murdoch outlining a statement Mr Hunt would make the following day announcing his intention to refer the takeover bid to the Competition Commission.

He wrote: "Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal...>!)"

Robert Jay QC, counsel to the Leveson Inquiry, suggested that News Corp was having "covert interactions" with Mr Hunt.

He said to Murdoch: "It was a sneak preview of the Secretary of State's press statement and the statement to Parliament, wasn't it, and you were given the gist of it here."

But the media mogul said he treated Mr Michel's "absolutely illegal" comment as a joke, adding that he expected Mr Hunt's advisers were also talking to other interested parties about the proposed BSkyB takeover.

Michel stressed that his emails were all based on information provided by Mr Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's director of media Jon Zeff, and did not derive from direct contact with the Culture Secretary.

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