Jeremy Hunt accused of 'cheerleader' role in Sky bid

Published Apr 24 2012, 16:20 BST  |  By

Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Culture

© Rex Features

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, is under pressure after he was accused of being a "cheerleader" in News Corporation's bid to take full control of Sky.

Former News International and Sky chairman James Murdoch was questioned today about a series of emails submitted to the inquiry by Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corp.

This included a series of messages from chief lobbyist Fréd Michel, which appeared to suggest that News Corp held a cosy position with Hunt, who eventually took over deciding on the Sky bid after the power had been stripped from business secretary Vince Cable.

On June 15, 2010, a day after News Corp submitted its first offer for Sky, Hunt's special advisor phoned Michel to inform him that an email had been sent to Murdoch saying that there "shouldn't be media plurality issue [with News Corp's takeover of Sky] and [that Hunt] believed the UK government would be supportive throughout the process".

The following month, Hunt said in an interview with the Financial Times: "It does seem to me that News Corp do control Sky already, so it isn't clear to me that in terms of media plurality there is a substantive change, but I don't want to second guess what regulators might decide."

At the inquiry today, counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay QC said to Murdoch that it was "clear that you were receiving information along the lines that the UK government as a whole would be supportive of News Corp".

However, Murdoch replied by saying that Hunt had been public in his belief that the government was supportive of the bid, and added that it was "not necessarily inappropriate" that Hunt's department was "saying we don't see any issues here".

James Murdoch
He was also asked about a comment on Hunt's website which said: "Hunt is a cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch's contribution to British television."

Murdoch replied: "I wouldn't describe it that way," later adding that the cheerleader claim was "unfair".

Hunt has repeatedly told parliament that he handled the bid in a "completely fair, impartial and above board" manner, but the revelations have led to further question marks over his conduct.

News Corp ultimately withdrew the bid after cross-party pressure from MPs following the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World.

In September 2010, BBC business editor Robert Peston wrote a blog post claiming that media regulator Ofcom would review News Corp's bid for the remaining shares in Sky that it did not already own.

At the Leveson today it was confirmed that it took only seven minutes for the story to be checked with Hunt's special advisor, who reportedly told Michel: "Jeremy Hunt is not aware and thinks it is not credible at all, and he is checking now."

Elsewhere in his testimony, Murdoch admitted that he had discussed the Sky bid with David Cameron at the home of former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks on December 23, 2010.

This was just two days after Cable had been stripped of the role of deciding on the Sky takeover for claiming he had "declared war" on the Murdochs.

James Murdoch said that he had discussed the change with the prime minister at the time, but claimed that it was only a "tiny conversation".

He denied that the purpose of the meeting was to find out how Cameron stood on the proposed Sky takeover.

He said: "I might want to know but the purpose of these meetings wasn't necessarily to find out, they were discussions on a broad range of subjects, from foreign policy to other things."

The BBC's Ross Hawkins tweeted: "Source tells me Hunt is not even considering resignation and will give his own evidence at #Leveson"