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24 April 2012

Is this the end for Jeremy Hunt?

Culture Secretary under pressure after acting as a "cheerleader" for the BSkyB bid.

By George Eaton

Jeremy Hunt is swiftly emerging as the cabinet minister with the most questions to answer following James Murdoch’s testimony to the Leveson inquiry. Rupert Murdoch has submitted 163 pages of emails between News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel and Hunt’s special adviser to the inquiry, which suggest that the Culture Secretary, in the words of Robert Jay, QC, acted as a “cheerleader” for the BSkyB bid. Even before he acquired ministerial responsibility for the deal, Hunt received “strong legal advice” not to meet James Murdoch but, according to the emails, later offered to speak to him on the phone. In addition, through his special adviser, he allegedly communicated his personal support for the deal. On 15 June 2010, Hunt’s special adviser reportedly told Michel, that he didn’t believe there was a “media plurality issue” and that “the UK government would be supportive throughout the process”.

In December, after Ofcom outlined its concerns over the bid, Michel claimed he had a “very good debrief with Hunt … he is pretty amazed by its findings, methodology and clear bias. He very much shares our views on it.”

With the full emails due to be published online after Murdoch’s appearance ends at 4pm, worse is likely to come.

Hunt has never made any secret of his admiration for News Corp and Murdoch snr. In an interview with Broadcast magazine while shadow culture secretary, he argued:

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.

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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.

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But given that he told MPs on 3 March that “at every stage of this process (the BSkyB deal) we have sought to be completely transparent, impartial and fair” the exchanges are deeply embarrassing and could even prove fatal. Indeed, Ladbrokes has just suspended betting on him being the next minister to leave the cabinet.