How impartial is Jeremy Hunt?

The decision over Murdoch’s BSkyB takeover passes to the Culture Secretary – who is on record praisi

Vince Cable has been stripped of all responsibility for media policy after it emerged yesterday that he told two undercover reporters that he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch.

The decision over Murdoch's £7.8bn bid to take over the 61 per cent of BSkyB not already owned by his NewsCorp will now pass to Jeremy Hunt, on the grounds that Cable cannot fulfil the quasi-judicial, decision-making role in the case after expressing a bias.

But is Jeremy Hunt really impartial? Here he is, talking to Broadcast magazine earlier in the year.

First, he is asked whether he would object to Sky News becoming a UK version of Fox News.

It is not going to happen. Sky News knows that audiences want it to remain an impartial news channel. It is not pushing to relax the impartiality requirement because it's very happy with it.

Second, and perhaps more pertinently, he is asked whether it would matter if Murdoch owned two TV news channels in the UK.

The important thing is not whether a particular owner owns another TV channel but to make sure you have a variety of owners with a variety of TV channels so that no one owner has a dominant position both commercially and politically.

Rather than worry about Rupert Murdoch owning another TV channel, what we should recognise is that he has probably done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person because of his huge investment in setting up Sky TV, which, at one point, was losing several million pounds a day.

We would be the poorer and wouldn't be saying that British TV is the envy of the world if it hadn't been for him being prepared to take that commercial risk. We need to encourage that kind of investment.

Labour MPs have rightly raised questions over Hunt's suitability to judge the case. This matter should not be dropped: it hardly adheres to the spirit of impartiality to transfer the decision from one politician who has expressed an opinion, to another who has simply expressed the opposite opinion.

NewsCorp must be thanking the Telegraph and the BBC (which published Cable's comments) for an early Christmas present.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.