Hunt and News International: a market abuse angle

Was there a wrongful disclosure of price sensitive information?

One potential issue for Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his former special adviser Adam Smith in the developing scandal of how the News International bid for the remaining shares of BSkyB was handled is the possible application of the law relating to the unauthorised disclosure of market sensitive information.

As the BBC’s Business Editor Robert Peston blogged this morning
 
Many of the emails by News Corp's director of public affairs, Fred Michel - which were published yesterday - speak to this point. But I will simply look at the one sent to James Murdoch on 24 January which contains the resonant phrase (in bold), "managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal..>!)."
 
This discloses to James Murdoch that Mr Hunt would make a press statement at 7.30am and a statement to parliament at 9.30am.
 
This statement would confirm that Ofcom felt the BSkyB takeover would harm plurality and should be passed to the Competition Commission - but would also say that News Corp would be given an opportunity to come up with remedies (or undertakings in lieu, to use the jargon), to prevent the Commission investigation.
 
Now Mr Hunt's planned statements to the press and parliament were confidential and price sensitive (with a bearing on the share prices of BSkyB and of News Corp). I know this because the DCMS said this to me, explicitly, at the time.
 
But Mr Michel had learned what Mr Hunt would say, from Mr Smith (or so Mr Michel says). And Mr Michel was discussing Mr Hunt's planned statement with Mr Murdoch at 3.21pm, the time of the email, or while markets were still open. 
 
So, on the face of it, Mr Michel and Mr Murdoch should not have been given this information, or at least not without signing a formal confidentiality agreement.
 
Mr Michel implied, with his "absolutely illegal" comment, that no confidentiality agreement had been signed.
 
Now it may be that the transmission of this information was covered by some general duty of confidentiality. But it does all look a bit odd.
 
The wrongful disclosure of market sensitive information can come under the prohibition on various market abuses in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA), which in turn can lead to rigorous enforcement action by the Financial Services Authority (FSA).
 
The FSA refused to comment on any particular case, and it also would not confirm whether any complaint about Hunt or Smith has been made.
 
Today Hunt told parliament that he is looking forward to giving his side of what happened to the Leveson Inquiry.  It may well be that concerns of an unauthorised disclosure are baseless. 
 
But given the robust policy of the FSA in respect of possible market abuses, Hunt may need to explain exactly how the information Michel was providing to James Murdoch  was not gained through an unauthorised disclosure contrary to the FSMA.
 
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman
 
Many thanks to Patrick Osgood.
Is the sun still shining for Jeremy Hunt? Photograph: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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