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Jeremy Hunt: how much longer can the government hold out?

Hunt wrote to Cameron expressing his support for the BSkyB bid, a month before taking control of the

New Statesman
Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. Photograph: Getty Images

Ever since last month’s revelations about the relationship between Jeremy Hunt’s office and News Corporation, the accepted wisdom has been that the reason the Culture Minister has remained in office is that David Cameron is using him as a human shield.

That shield was dented yesterday, after the Leveson Inquiry published a memo which showed that Cameron knew that Hunt was in favour of Rupert Murdoch’s £8bn bid to buy BSkyB. The memo was send on 19 November 2010, a month before Cameron handed Hunt the quasi-judicial power to rule on the bid. Although at that point, the decision was in the hands of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, it makes very clear that Hunt was actively supporting the bid.

Here it is in full:

James Murdoch is pretty furious at Vince's referral to Ofcom. He doesn't think he will get a fair hearing from Ofcom.

I am privately concerned about this because News Corp are very litigious and we could end up in the wrong place in terms of media policy.  

Essentially what James Murdoch wants to do is to repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world's first multi-platform media operator, available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad.  Isn't this what all media companies have to do ultimately?  And if so,we must be very careful that any attempt to block it is done on genuine plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors.

The UK has the chance to lead the way ... but if we block it our media sector will suffer for years.  In the end I am sure sensible controls can be put into any merger to ensure there is plurality, but I think it would be totally wrong to cave in to the Mark Thomson/Channel 4/Guardian line that this represents a substantial change of control given that we all know Sky is controlled by News Corp now anyway.

What next?  Ofcom will issue their report saying whether it needs to go to the Competition Commission by 31 December.  It would be totally wrong for the government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm's length.  However I do think you, I, Vince and the DPM should meet to discuss the policy issues that are thrown up as a result.

The memo was sent four days after a phone call between Hunt and James Murdoch - a phone call that was necessary because Hunt's permanent secretary by his permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens.

It is pretty damning stuff. Downing Street’s response was simply to say that the memo does not contradict Hunt’s public statements, as he has always made it clear that in principle he had no problem with the bid.

However, let us remind ourselves of Hunt’s statement to the Commons last month:

I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business.

It is difficult to read the memo as anything other than an intervention. Failing to tell the truth to parliament is a breach of the ministerial code. Cameron refused to investigate potential breaches when the news first broke last month. Will he now continue to do so? As the evidence builds up thick and fast that Hunt was not acting in an impartial manner, it is difficult to see how the government will justify its continued refusal to act.

Hunt is due to appear in front of the inquiry on 31 May.

UPDATE 1.45pm

David Cameron has strongly defended Hunt during an interview with ITV's Daybreak. He told the show that the memo was not relevant:

The key thing was it wasn't what [Hunt] had said in the past, it was how he was going to do the job. And I think, if you look at how he did the job, he asked for independent advice at every stage and he took that independent advice and he did it in a thoroughly proper way.