There is an old joke about a gamekeeper confronting a poacher who is heading home at dawn with a deer over his shoulder. “Aha!” exclaims the gamekeeper. “Caught you redhanded!” The poacher, all innocent surprise, replies: “What do you mean?” “I mean that, on your shoulder,” says the gamekeeper, pointing. The poacher swivels his eyes towards his own shoulder, affects to see the dead animal for the very first time and, with an expression of horror, thrusts it away crying: “Yeugh! How did that get there?”
Jeremy Hunt’s performance at the Leveson inquiry called that story to mind. You had to wonder what the judge made of it all, since down the years in the criminal courts he has no doubt seen his share of poacher types offering improbable defences.
Here was a secretary of state, no less, telling the inquiry that he did not know in 2010 what the term “quasi-judicial” meant, and asserting that when he was given responsibility for News Corporation’s BSkyB bid he did not realise that meetings should be minuted by officials.
Here was a witness who professed not to see that his own “broad sympathy” with News Corp might, as a matter of probity, disqualify him from responsibility for the bid in just the way that Vince Cable’s “acute bias” had done – even when he was reminded that his “sympathy” extended to reckless behind-the-scenes lobbying of the prime minister.
He also had no idea, he insisted, that phone hacking was “a volcano that was about to erupt”, yet if he had read the 2010 report on hacking by his parliamentary colleagues on the Commons media select committee he would have found more than enough evidence of a corporate cover-up to worry a scrupulous minister.
The inquiry also heard that Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, was so perfect, conscientious and in tune with the minister’s thinking that he might have qualified as his second brain, yet Hunt was unaware of the intensive, indiscreet two-way traffic of information between Smith and News Corp.
Remember, the inquiry has already had to swallow the assertion that a welter of emails from News Corp’s PR man Fred Michel referring to his frequent, close contacts with “Jeremy”, “Jeremy Hunt” and “JH” did not in fact relate to the man we know as Jeremy Hunt.
Given all of this poacher-style pleading, Lord Justice Leveson could be forgiven for feeling he has been mistaken for Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who was capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast.
Like several other witnesses, and notably his chum James Murdoch, Hunt has been driven to absurdity by the desperate need to open up a space between the two most plausible interpretations of his conduct: that he is a scoundrel and that he is a fool. Like James, he veered a little closer to the latter, which after all is safer.
But there is arrogance here, too. Despite the overwhelming evidence of his personal bias in the matter, he insists he oversaw the process of the BSkyB bid impartially, and that nobody can prove otherwise.
Cable could claim he would have done exactly the same. The difference, though, was that while the public had found out about Cable’s bias, it was not aware of the depth of Hunt’s, and you get a flavour of the sneaky smugness with which this difference was viewed in George Osborne’s text message to Hunt saying: “Hope you like the solution.”
Who was being duped by this clever “solution” of giving Hunt responsibility for the bid? We were.
And what should we make of that central argument, that if the proper process was followed nothing else matters? This, too, is revealing, first because Hunt does not see that with the help of his special adviser he has compromised himself so far that his insufficiently minuted word is worth very little, and second, and more fundamentally, because he can’t see that he simply failed to do the right thing.
When, on 21 December 2010, he was told he would be in charge of the bid, he should have said no. Especially after seeing the job taken away from Cable, he should have sat down and audited his own actions in relation to the bid and his own very unequal relationships with News Corp and with the bid’s many opponents. Then he should have recognised that even if this record only gave the appearance of partiality it would compromise the credibility of the outcome. At that point he should have asked that someone else take charge.
That is what a conscientious public servant does, especially when what is at stake is, as Hunt acknowledged, a huge financial transaction carrying serious implications for British democracy. Hunt several times mentioned the word “transparency”. As with “quasi-judicial” he needs someone to explain it to him. If we’d had transparency, he would not have spent the day sweating in front of Robert Jay QC.
And he simply cannot dispute the appearance of bias. There are happily married couples who communicate less than he and his adviser did with News Corp – while not a single other news organisation in the country, pretty well all of which opposed the bid, could get a word in edgeways.
Will he resign? Why would he? If he doesn’t know the right thing to do, he would only resign for wrong reasons, and who can know those? Nonetheless, a clock is now ticking both for him and David Cameron.
When Leveson finishes his report some time in the autumn he must deliver it to his sponsoring departments: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office. The Home Office is in the mix because the inquiry touches on policing, but the rest of the report is presumably a matter for the culture secretary, who must decide on behalf of the government how to proceed with its recommendations.
It is surely inconceivable that Hunt could still be in the job at that time, first because the report will doubtless contain the judge’s conclusions on his own conduct and second because we now know all about his warm feelings towards the Murdoch businesses, which will be at the heart of the report. Imagine, for a moment, the scenes in parliament if Hunt were to present the government’s formal response to the report.
If he won’t go of his own accord, then by the autumn Cameron will have to sack him or move him. But Cameron probably won’t be thinking of that right now because first he must account to Leveson for his own conduct, including the decision to put Hunt in charge of the BSkyB bid when he knew he was just as biased as Cable. We may well see the poacher’s gambit deployed again.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart
This post originally appeared on the Guardian “Comment is Free” and is reproduced with permission and thanks.