Cheerio to News International’s ‘Cheerleader’

Wilf Stevenson

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara speaks from Labour’s frontbench on DCMS matters in the House of Lords

The Government is reaping a whirlwind of its own making in relation to the Leveson Inquiry.  And there is more to come. The latest casualty looks as though it will be Jeremy Hunt, whose Commons statement in defence of the current allegations about his conduct surely can’t save him.

His first point is that we should wait until Lord Justice Leveson reports, and look at all the evidence. Well, given the timescales involved, he might well say that. But the point is that Lord Leveson is not responsible for ensuring that Ministers carry out their duties in accordance with the Ministerial Code, which is what is at stake here.

Mr Hunt is well known to have been a supporter of News International. When he was asked to take on the quasi-judicial role of deciding about the proposed merger of News Corp with BskyB, he said that he got special clearance from the Cabinet Secretary, and then argues that he “followed due process – seeking the advice of independent regulators, and, after careful consideration, acting on their advice”.

But as has been pointed out, although OFCOM recommended that the bid should be referred to the Competition Commission, Mr Hunt did not do so, relying instead on “undertakings” solicited and received from News International. In substituting his judgement for OFCOM’s there is at least an argument that Mr Hunt was doing a favour to News Corp by permitting the negotiation of these remedies, so he leaves himself open to the charge that he was indeed News International’s “cheerleader”.
Mr Hunt has admitted that the volume and tone of the emails exchanged between his special adviser Adam Smith and Fred Michel of News International were not appropriate in a quasi-judicial process. It beggars belief that Mr Hunt did not know that this so-called back channel existed – keeping the boss briefed is one of the key responsibilities of special advisers.

However, the BBC’s Robert Peston has pointed out that one of the emails released yesterday shows that on the afternoon of  24 January 2011, James Murdoch received price sensitive market information, from DCMS, about a statement Jeremy Hunt was due to give the following morning about the Competition Commission referral. 

This is rather more serious than “overstepping the mark”, or “giving advice on process”. Indeed it may catch the eye of the FSA and lead to other inquiries. Clearly, this information should not have been given to Mr Murdoch. And as it has come from the Department of which he is Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt should surely take responsibility for it and, rather than sacking his hapless special adviser, should do the honourable thing and resign. 

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