News: Leveson Inquiry, Week 21:Tony Blair, Jeremy Hunt and ministers – Natalie Peck

10 06 2012

One of the biggest weeks of the Leveson Inquiry so far saw a former prime minister and several Cabinet ministers give evidence on contact with the press, regulation and the BSkyB takeover bid. Tony Blair’s long-awaited testimony on his relationship with Rupert Murdoch was interrupted by a protestor – who managed to access the restricted judge’s corridor – and Jeremy Hunt took to the witness stand to vindicate himself over inappropriate contact with News Corporation over the BSkyB bid.

Former prime minister Tony Blair – the only witness to give evidence on Monday – told the inquiry he had never made a deal with Rupert Murdoch over policy issues, but admitted he took the views of News International titles into account when working out government strategy.  He said:

“There was no deal on issues to do with the media with Rupert Murdoch or indeed with anybody else, either express or implied, and to be fair, he never sought such a thing.”

He denied changing any policy as a result of Murdoch’s interference, after being asked about claims – made by former Labour press officer Lance Price – that several implied deals had been brokered between Number 10 and News Corporation.

Last month, Murdoch told the inquiry he had never asked Blair or any other prime minister for a favour and accused the inquiry’s lead barrister, Robert Jay QC, of making “sinister inferences” over the relationship.

He said: “I want to say, Mr Jay, that I, in ten years of his power, never asked Mr Blair for anything.  Nor indeed did I receive any favours.  If you want to check that, I think you should call him.”

Blair said he decided not to carry out a review of cross-media ownership because it would have been a distraction to his government and not because he wanted to please Murdoch.

He added: “I did not change our positions on core policy issues at all. On the other hand, managing these [media] forces was a major part of what you had to do and was difficult.

 

“I cannot recall conversation [with Murdoch] about media regulation per se. I mean he didn’t lobby me on media stuff. That’s not to say we weren’t aware of the positions their company had, because we were, but as I say we decided more often against than in favour but the bulk of conversation was about politics and Europe.”

Blair famously flew over to the Hayman Island in July 1995 to meet with Murdoch at his conference. Paul Keating, then Australian prime minister, was also present. Two years later the Sun and the News of the World switched support to the Labour Party, before the 1997 general election. According to Number 10 spin doctor Alastair Campbell, Keating said: “You can do deals with [Murdoch] without ever saying a deal is done”.

Blair was asked about three phone calls he had with Murdoch in the run-up to the Iraq war in March 2003. Campbell told the inquiry it was “nonsense” that Blair turned to Murdoch for support over the decision to invade the country.

He said the phone conversations lasted no more than 45 minutes in total and provided the inquiry with a list of meetings and contact with other media organisations during the period.

He added: “I would have been wanting to explain what we are doing. I think I had similar calls with the Observer and the Telegraph. I don’t think there’s anything particularly odd about that when you’re facing such an issue.”

He denied discussing press coverage with Murdoch. The proprietor told the inquiry he did not remember the calls and said News International’s position on the war had been declared in all titles before the calls took place. Blair said his working relationship with Murdoch changed after he left office in 2007. He became godfather to Murdoch’s daughter in 2010. He added:

“I would never have become a godfather to one of his children on the basis of my relationship in office. After I left I got to know him, and the relationship can be easier and better.”

Blair said there was “absolutely no truth” in a claim made by Labour MP Tom Watson when giving evidence to the inquiry last week.  Watson said Rupert Murdoch had called Blair to call off Watson over the phone hacking scandal.  Watson said he was certain the 2009 phone call – relayed to him by Gordon Brown – had taken place, and that Downing Street insiders told him News International were trying to persuade senior politicians to tell him to hold back.

Watson told the inquiry he took the call when on holiday in the Peak District, after noting both Murdoch and Blair have denied the call. He added:

“Well, I can tell you the exact position I was standing in when I took the phone call, because the idea that Rupert Murdoch would call Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to phone me is not the sort of thing a backbench MP would forget too easily. It was within a wider conversation but I noted it.”

Blair’s evidence was interrupted in the afternoon when a protestor burst into the court behind Lord Justice Leveson, shouting the former prime minister should be arrested for war crimes. The protestor – David Lawley Wakelin from the Alternative Iraq Enquiry – was removed from the court arrested by police, later released with no further action.

The former prime minister said he believed Ofcom, the statutory media regulator, was the right organisation to oversee media policy but would not be able to replace the Press Complaints Commission as a press regulator.

Blair confirmed he texted former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks following her resignation over phone hacking allegations last year. He said Brooks was important as editor of the Sun but there was “no doubt [Murdoch] was the key decision-maker” at News International.

On Tuesday morning, home secretary Theresa May revealed she was concerned about a link between the Metropolitan Police and News of the World. She told the inquiry she wrote to Scotland Yard on July 14, 2011 – after the Milly Dowler revelations – about a contract between the Met Police and Neil Wallis’ PR firm Chamy Media. The former News of the World deputy editor had been hired by the Met’s head of press Dick Fedorcio as a PR consultant in 2009. Fedorcio resigned from his job in March this year after learning he would face disciplinary proceedings over awarding the contract to Wallis’ firm.

May was given a briefing note on July 18, 2011, to help answer potential lydifficult questions in the House of Commons, including a response to whether a link could be drawn between Wallis’ relationship with the Met and the hiring of Andy Coulson as David Cameron’s director of communications. Coulson, former News of the World editor, resigned from Number 10 in January 2011 over the phone hacking scandal.

Wallis told the inquiry last month he advised Sir Paul Stephenson, Met commissioner from 2009 to 2011, on how to improve his chances of being made commissioner and was not hesitant about sharing his opinions with the officer. Stephenson denied a close friendship with Wallis and told the inquiry the former journalist was an acquaintance. The former commissioner resigned in July 2011 after the relationship was questioned.

May said she was surprised by the resignation – following the revelation the commissioner had stayed free of charge in a Champneys spa promoted by Wallis – but had not tried to dissuade Stephenson.  She said:

“I expressed surprise because I’d already had a conversation that weekend with Sir Paul when he’d spoken to me about the all that appeared in the newspaper about his day at Champneys, and he’d given no hint in that conversation at a possible resignation, therefore when he rang me later that weekend to say that he had resigned, obviously that was a surprising turn of events.

 I feel that he led the Met Police well when he was commissioner, and the organisation at the end of it was stronger for his leadership, and it was in that context that I expressed regret that matters had come to this point.”

May said she had not been briefed on phone hacking before an article on the scandal was published by the New York Times in September 2010. She told the inquiry several times the police were responsible for the phone hacking investigations rather than the Home Office, and at the time she decided to let them continue. May maintained it was for the police to consider fresh evidence after Robert Jay QC suggested a body of evidence worth investigations emerged towards the end of 2010. She said:

“I think it’s important that the police are able to complete their investigations and then judgments may be made in relation to a particular case, so it was right for them to do their investigation.

 This is a question of how the police were handling the case. It was a question about whether new evidence had been available, that there was a specific question as to whether individuals had been informed, who were on the list, as to whether their phone might or might not have been hacked.”

She said she was reassured by Tim Godwin, acting Metropolitan Police commissioner, that the phone-hacking inquiry was “under control” in January 2011.

The home secretary was also asked whether she had been put under any pressure by the Sun to order a review of the Madeleine McCann case. Her reply was that work in the Home Office was “coming to fruition around this time anyway”. Both Rebekah Brooks and Sun editor Dominic Mohan had called May at the time, on May 11, 2011.

The inquiry was shown, during her evidence, new guidance on media and police relationships drafted by Association of Chief Police Officers, which May said were important in keeping advice on contact consistent across all forces. She added:

“I think it’s trying to apply a framework of common sense to the relationships that the police should be having with the media. It is the case that the police in various circumstances do need to speak to the media and the media will be speaking to the police.

 I think what this does is brings a clear framework in for offences so that they understand the way in which those meetings or discussion can take place and that everything is recorded.”

During the afternoon hearing, education secretary Michael Gove denied having advance knowledge of News Corporation’s BSkyB bid. The minister – who described News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch as one of the “most impressive and significant figures of the past 50 years” – admitted it would have been important if he knew about the bid before it was officially launched in June 2010.

Gove was asked about a series of meetings with News Corp executives, including Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, at the time but denied speaking about the proposed takeover, which he said he had not followed as closely as others at the time.

He said he discussed education at a meeting with Murdoch, Brooks and others on May 19, 2010. He went on to say it was “highly unlikely” the bid was mentioned when he gave a lunchtime interview to a Times journalist, during a News International board meeting on June 15.  He added:

“[The bid was not mentioned] in my hearing. I arrived after the board had been having their discussion and my interaction with any of the board was limited, because I arrived and was ushered to a sort of Parkinson-style seat where Daniel Finkelstein asked me a series of questions, and then I was able to thank my host and then leave.”

He said he had not discussed his view on the failed takeover with colleagues but admitted they could infer his thoughts on the bid. Gove also denied discussing phone hacking with Murdoch or Brooks over two meetings in June 2011. He told the inquiry:

“I tried to exercise appropriate judgment on all occasions… I think there are certain common sense judgments which would apply to politicians, judges, barristers, about exactly when you make your excuse and leave, and when you say, ‘that’s a very kind offer, but I fear I can’t accept’.”

Gove – who worked for the Murdoch-owned Times as a leader writer and comment, news, Saturday and assistant editor – said he enjoyed meeting the proprietor as a journalist and as a politician. He added:

“There are few entrepreneurs who have taken risks in the way that he has, and therefore generated employment but also controversy in the way in which he has. I enjoyed meeting with him when I was a journalist. I subsequently enjoyed meeting him when I was a politician, and I would also say that as well as having been a successful businessman, I think that the position that he took on, for example, the European single currency has been vindicated by events.”

He was asked about a failed proposal for News International to open an academy school in East London, in 2010. Gove said he had a meeting on November 30 with James Murdoch, Brooks, Will Lewis, Times editor James Harding, London mayor Boris Johnson and others to discuss whether Newham Council would provide a building for the venture. He said the proposal was made to fulfil the company’s corporate responsibility charter.

Robert Jay QC probed the minister on the involvement of Joel Klein – former chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education and News Corp board member – and whether Murdoch had been hoping to make a profit from the school. Gove said he knew nothing about Wireless Generation – an educational subsidiary of the company – although was aware Murdoch had an interest in technology changing education. He added:

“I believe that Rupert Murdoch was only interested in establishing a school for purely philanthropic reasons.”

Gove said newspaper proprietors attempt to influence politicians but said most contact with the press is above board. He said:

“It’s certainly the case that there are sometimes elements of the relationships between politicians and journalists that can be a little rough-edged. I think that is certainly true. And it is also the case that there are some politicians and some journalists who develop over time a close relationship, which may not altogether be in the public interest. But in my experience, most politicians and most journalists have a proper sense of the boundaries between each.”

Asked by Lord Justice Leveson why politicians and journalists were unpopular with the public he replied: “T’was ever thus”.

He told the inquiry he had met Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre on at least two occasions, and described him as “one of the most impressive editors of our age”.

Gove said free speech means “some people are going to get offended”. He previously claimed the inquiry is having a chilling effect on the press, since it was announced last summer. He said he believes the law of the land is sufficient to deal with offending behaviour by newspapers. He said:

“I have a prior belief that we should use existing laws of the land and that individuals and institutions should be judged fairly on the basis of the existing laws of the land.”

On Wednesday morning, business secretary Vince Cable Vince Cable claimed News Corporation made “veiled threats” against the Liberal Democrat Party over the BSkyB bid. Cable – in charge of overseeing the proposed takeover until December 2010 – said colleagues had approached him claiming his party would be “done over” by News International newspapers if the bid was rejected.

He said he believed the Murdoch’s political influence had become disproportionate. He intervened in the bid on public interest grounds on November 4, 2010 after deciding a change in ownership at BSkyB could have wide ramifications on other companies. He said:

“I had heard directly and indirectly from colleagues that there had been veiled threats that if I made the wrong decision from the point of view of the company [News Corp], my party would be – I think somebody used the phrase ‘done over’ in the News International press and I took those things seriously, I was very concerned.”

He later added:

“I was concerned at all times that I should act properly, and did so, but I was also conscious that by putting the matter in the hands of independent regulators, this was contrary to the interests of News Corp and indeed what they wanted, and would have repercussions.”

Cable, who refused to name the politicians he had spoken to, said he believed the threats came from News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel, but was not certain. He said he discovered it was “happening in the background” as he dealt with the bid process.

The inquiry heard how Michel tried to set up a meeting with Cable, but was refused. He referred to conversations with advisors to the business secretary in several emails to News Corp – including James Murdoch – during 2010.  Lord Justice Leveson pointed out the emails were likely to refer to Giles Wilkes, Cable’s special advisor.

Cable said he was “quite confident” Wilkes and fellow advisor Katie Waring consistently told Michel neither he or they could meet with News Corp. He said neither had been given responsibility to speak for Cable on the bid, because of the legal sensitivity around the quasi-judicial process. He added:

“The name Fred Michel didn’t register on my radar [at the time] but I was aware that there was a request to have a meeting, and I didn’t wish to pursue it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t wish to be disrespectful to Mr Murdoch, I do meet major investors. But in this case I thought there were compelling reasons not to meet him.

First of all, there was a legal risk because the subject which he clearly wished to talk about was something I couldn’t talk about, that if I did meet him this might be perceived by other parties to be partial in this direction and I would therefore have to see them, and there were a lot of them, so potentially very large numbers of meeting which by definition, could not have any substance.

 I think the key reason was I didn’t actually think it was necessary because they had an opportunity to, through [their lawyers] to put their opinions in writing as submissions.”

In December 2010, Cable was removed from his post overseeing the bid when two Telegraph journalists secretly recorded him saying he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch. The proposed takeover was handed over to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. He held the position until the bid fell through in July 2011 over the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Cable said his self discipline had “broken down momentarily” when talking to two women he believed to be constituents, who were actually undercover reporters.

He said his state of mind was altered because he felt “under siege” from News Corp and was dealing with protestors causing a disturbance outside the office.

He was recorded by the two reporters saying: “I don’t know if you have been following what has been happening with the Murdoch press, where I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win.” He told Leveson:

“I was extremely tense and emotional frame of mind, and the two women, who I thought were constituents coming to see me about a constituency problem… as I explain I’m normally very calm in dealing with difficult situations.

I did offload onto them a lot of pent-up feelings not just about the BSkyB case that I was dealing with, but about my colleagues in government and a variety of other issues in language that I wouldn’t normally use, in what I thought was a private, confidential conversation.”

He told the inquiry his reference to “war” was to make it clear he would not be intimidated by Murdoch’s empire but admitted his remarks created a perception of bias, forcing David Cameron to remove him from the bid. He added:

“The Telegraph, like several other newspapers, was very hostile to the Coalition. They didn’t want a coalition government they wanted a Conservative government and felt that the Liberal Democrats were compromising their true Conservative values, and so all the Liberal Democrat minsters in the government, not just me, were subject to this intervention ins out private conversations with constituents.”

Cable said he was determined to remain impartial in his quasi-judicial role and refused to meet with James Murdoch, and other interested parties outside of News Corp, to discuss the bid. He said during a phone call with Murdoch on June 15, 2010, he was careful not to express an opinion and the call was noted by an official. He added:

“My views about [News Corp] were actually quite nuanced. I did think there was disproportionate political influence and some politicians got too close to them. But I never had a bad experience myself at the hands of News International newspapers.”

He denied trying to halt the takeover: 

“My intention was to have the matter properly reviewed by the regulator because I judged that, under the process that I had, it satisfied the necessary tests for an intervention.

So it wasn’t my intention, I was constrained by the process and I fully accepted that, so I acted entirely properly.”

Cable said he did not tell Michel there would “not be policy issue” on the bid during a June 15, 2010, and said officials were listening in on the conversation and would have taken him to task if it had been said.

Rhodri Davies QC, representing News International and News Corp at the inquiry, said Cable’s allegations News International threatened the Liberal Democrats had little evidence to back them up.  Cable replied:

“I’m trying to explain the context in which I made my own comments in a private and confidential conversation, and what it was that made me seriously disturbed by the way News International was operating … I’m not trying to build up a case against Mr Michel, just trying to explain what I was thinking.”

When asked about future regulation, he told Lord Justice Leveson self-regulation has not worked well and advocated a “hybrid structure” with a statutory framework.

On Wednesday afternoon, the inquiry heard from Ken Clarke, justice secretary and Lord Chancellor.

Clarke has said information uncovered by Operation Motorman, investigating the use of private detectives by journalists, was “startling”  and told the inquiry he was shocked by the extent of data mining – the sometimes illegal obtaining of private information by investigators – revealed when the Information Commissioner published two reports on the practice in 2006. He expressed surprise that people “happily indulging” in illegal activity were not prosecuted.

The minister, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, said he was told to move his bank account after journalists attempted to bribe local branch staff in order to access the account. He added:

“The scale of it appears to be startling. Motorman made people aware this had [become] a very profitable and large industry… The scale has certainly shocked me – when I would have thought I was fairly worldly wise on the subject – but I had no idea it was going on in this monumental scale.”

Clarke argued he was not in favour of a public interest defence for data protection offences. He told the inquiry he had been lobbied by Paul Dacre and other media executives who wanted a legal defence for journalists breaking the law in pursuit of legitimate stories. He said:

“I do think journalists are entitled to bribe in an extreme case if it’s the only way in which they can get information about some major public scandal. I generally take the view that the press should be bound by the law like anyone else. But I do not rule out the possibility that there will be occasions where they will need to break the law to expose a crime or serious misdemeanour that would not otherwise be uncovered.”

He said Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was drawing up new guidelines in relation to the Bribery Act, regarding journalists paying public officials for stories.

He went on to tell the inquiry the power of the press has become greater than the power of Parliament and said there had been a “marked cultural shift” in the relationship between journalists and politicians. He said: “Politics now is a mass-media dominated activity. So is government. I’m not sure we’ve learnt how to handle it.” He later added:

“In the last 20 or 30 years there has been an obsession with newspapers, which wasn’t there before. The present incestuous relationship between the two is quite peculiar and all based on the belief that daily headlines really matter, and I don’t think they really do.”

Clarke said there was no point in politicians trying to curry favour with the press and questioned the power of the Sun to influence voters, saying he did not think the paper had a significant effect on an election in his life time. Rather, he said, Rupert Murdoch was skilled at switching his support to the winning party.

He said former prime minister Gordon Brown became “utterly obsessed” with media coverage and warned politicians from reading articles about themselves. He added:

“If I’d been in Gordon Brown’s entourage I’d have tried to stop him reading any newspapers and get back to the business of what they were going to do.

My advice to some of my colleagues in the past has been to stop reading them when I found colleagues were being upset by the newspapers, quite inordinately. I don’t read them all myself and I never understood why politicians do. Margaret Thatcher never read a newspaper from one day to the next.

The present enthusiastic relationship between [the press and politicians] is quite peculiar and all based by both side believing that the daily headlines really matter to an extraordinary extent, which I don’t believe for one moment they do – so far as real people in the real world outside Westminster and Whitehall are concerned.”

The justice secretary said the relationship changed after the victory of New Labour in 1997, and the appointment of former tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell as Number 10’s spin-doctor – which he described as the introduction of “control freakery” to Westminster.

He told the inquiry he knew of one journalist who had been banned from the Treasury for a story she had written. He warned Lord Justice Leveson that the conclusions of the inquiry would be criticised “wherever you put the line”.

On Friday, the inquiry heard from culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.  It ws revealed the minister congratulated James Murdoch over the BSkyB bid going through Brussels hours before being appointed to replace Vince Cable.  The culture secretary sent a text message to James Murdoch on December 21, 2010 – just hours before he was handed responsibility for the bid – to congratulate him after the European commission approved the £8 billion proposed takeover. He told the News Corp chairman: “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go”.

Before taking over the bid, Hunt took phone calls and exchanged text messages with James Murdoch, after receiving legal advice not to contact parties involved in News Corporation’s bid for the remaining BSkyB shares. Hunt – who defended his handling of the quasi-judicial role overseeing the bid – said today he was unaware of the volume of contact between his special advisor, Adam Smith, and News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel.

He also spoke to Murdoch later on December 21, 2010, to discuss comments made by business secretary Vince Cable to undercover journalists from the Telegraph. Last week, the inquiry heard Hunt had spoken to James Murdoch on the phone on November 15, 2010 after being advised by a government legal head not communicate with the company, or write to Cable about the bid.

Hunt – who revealed he only uses his personal email account while his staff monitors his official department account – admitted his messages to Murdoch presented a “positive view”. He sent a private memo to David Cameron on November 19 praising the bid, despite receiving advice not to intervene in Cable’s process. He later said he understood Cable could not have attended the meeting on the bid with him, Cameron and Nick Clegg, which he called for at the time.

Later on December 21, Hunt sent a message to Andy Coulson – Number 10 communications director and former News of the World editor – to say he was “seriously worried” Cable would damage the government with his comments.

He also texted George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, asking to talk about the bid saying he was “seriously worried we are going to screw this up”.

Another text read: “Just been called by James M. His lawyers are meeting now & saying it calls into question legitimacy of whole process from beginning ‘acute bias’ etc.”  Osborne replied: “I hope you like the solution!” – just hours before Hunt was handed the bid.

Hunt – who said he would not have texted Murdoch if in charge of the bid at the time – claimed it was “widely known” that he was sympathetic to a News Corp takeover but said he took steps to make sure he acted impartially in the role. He told the inquiry he set aside his personal views and set up a process “explicitly” to make sure he could not use them to inform the decision.

The inquiry were also shown messages between Murdoch and Hunt from March 2011, when the culture secretary congratulated Murdoch on his promotion to deputy chief operating officer of News Corp.  He wrote: “Many congratulations on the promotion although I am sure you will really miss Ofcom in NY!”  Hunt – who said he would have avoided all text messages in hindsight, said he was pulling Murdoch’s leg over “his much-hated Ofcom”.

Jay QC asked why Hunt had published a comment on his personal website claiming to be a “cheerleader” for Rupert Murdoch. The minister said the quote came from a magazine article and was posted along with other comments for the benefit of his constituents. He then admitted having an unrecorded meeting with James Murdoch on June 20, 2010, where the bid was probably discussed.

Hunt said Smith, who resigned last month over his contact with Michel, was the official point of contact for News Corp but had not been given specific instructions on his role in the process.  He told the inquiry: “I doubt there’s any minister who worked more closely with a special adviser than I worked with Adam Smith”.

He said he was aware Smith was in regular contact with Michel but was surprised by the extent of communication between the two. The News Corp lobbyist sent text messages 542 times to Smith. Hunt called this an “extraordinary amount” and said he had not realised the pressure being put on his adviser by the company, despite being aware of Michel’s “pushiness”.

On May 12, 2011, Michel sent an email to Smith urging the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to complete the bid by June otherwise it would be “catastrophic for many important reasons” – two months before the Guardian revealed the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World.

Hunt said News Corp were worried the scandal would derail the bid and were aware “there were more and more explosive revelations down the track”. After a conversation with Number 10 lawyers, Hunt wrote to regulator Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading for advice but News Corp pulled the bid on June 13.

Hunt took legal advice on whether phone hacking would affect the bid on April 18 but said he did not believe an issue of trust extended to News Corp from subsidiary company News International.

Hunt said this changed after the News of the World was closed down, when he questioned a corporate governance issue at the newspaper. He added:

“I asked myself: ‘If they found it necessary to close down the whole paper, is there a corporate governance issue here?’”

 During his evidence, the culture secretary referred several times to the contact between Smith and Michel, saying his advisor had been lapsed into inappropriate language because of the pressure he was under from the company.  He told the inquiry:

 “What I didn’t deduce from this was the effect of this contact multiplied many, many times over to Adam Smith. That was the crucial thing – that right at the beginning of the process that we didn’t foresee – the fact that there was going to be such a volume of correspondence, and I think it’s something that we have to reflect on in terms of the way that we handle bids in the future.

My feeling is that Adam Smith is the most decent, straight, honourable person that one could imagine, and even he was not able to maintain the impartiality that he needed to because of the volume of communication [with Michel], and I think that was where things wrong as far as his communication was concerned.”

Smith told the inquiry last week it would not have surprised anyone in the DCMS that he was in regular contact with Michel and he acted as a “buffer” between News Corp and the minister.

Of his own contact with Michel, Hunt said the lobbyist used flattery as a weapon and had been “cheeky” to contact him on December 20, 2010 following a tense meeting with Murdoch. He added:

“He was just looking for any opportunity he could to establish contact of one sort or another.”

Last week, Michel claimed he tried to boost morale at News Corp when relaying conversations with Smith over the bid. Hunt agreed, saying he may have exaggerated contact with the adviser to please Murdoch and other executives.

He said an email from Michel to Murdoch saying the closure of the News of the World would not affect the bid was “just wrong”. He told the inquiry it was difficult to comment on the contact between Smith and Michel because it was unclear which parts were true.

He added: “I’m not sure that [Smith] did ever misrepresent my private view. We don’t know from Mr Michel’s emails how much is fact and how much is fiction.”

Hunt said he had considered whether to resign himself but decided it would not be appropriate, as he had conducted the bid “scrupulously”.

He came under pressure after the contact between Smith and Michel was revealed at the inquiry during James Murdoch’s appearance, on May 24.  Hunt said: “There was no other choice but to accept with a heavy heart Adam’s resignation”. He added:

“It may have been that one of the factors that made it easier for Mr Michel to suck Mr Smith into a situation where he was using some inappropriate language was partly because there was some pre-existing relationship, which would have been less likely with a civil servant – and that might be something that we want to reflect on in terms of doing things for the future.”

In his written witness statement he said:

The contact between my former special advisor Adam Smith and Mr Michel was not a secret back channel through which News Corporation was able to influence my decisions.  I did not see or hear of any of the texts, emails or conversations between my Special Advisor and Mr Michel whilst I was responsible for the merger until April 24, 2012.”

Towards the end of his evidence, Hunt advocated a press regulator independent of politicians and serving newspaper editors. He said:

“If there was a way that the successor to the PCC could be a champion of press freedom and a champion of press standards as well as a complaints body – when things have gone wrong – that would be a positive thing for the entire press industry. If the press are willing to support a structure of independent self-regulation which commands the confidence of the public and therefore does have the distance from serving editors, as well as proper distance from politicians, if such a body could be set up then I think that the government could consider whether that the regulatory structure and the rules could be made similar for products that go out online and on video on demand, and the other types of things the press will be doing.”

Natalie Peck, is the web reporter for Hacked Off and a PhD researcher examining privacy law and public figures. She is @nataliepeck on Twitter.


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