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Rupert’s revenge, a dodgy dossier and a minister on the run

For several days before James Murdoch’s appearance at the Leveson inquiry, the word on the Fleet Street grapevine was that he would plant an explosive device under the political career of Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. Murdoch Jr did not disappoint. News Corporation has a reputation for being – how shall we put it? – a little careless with preserving its email records. Its habit of mislaying emails, shipping them out to India or simply deleting them in the course of “modernisation” hampered the police inquiries into phone-hacking. But here, delivered to Leveson,  was a carefully preserved, even pristine, record of email communications from Frédéric Michel, News Corp’s director of public affairs, during the period when Hunt was supposedly giving his unbiased consideration to the company’s bid to take full control of BSkyB.

Why such transparency? The answer is that the Murdochs make deals with politicians. James’s father, Rupert, has been doing it all his adult life. The latest deal was that the Murdoch tabloids would back the Tories in the 2010 general election. In return, the Tories, when they returned to power, would look sympathetically on Murdoch’s interests: limiting the powers of the media regulator Ofcom, cutting the BBC down to size and nodding through News Corp’s attempt to get its hands on the whole of BSkyB and its lucrative cash flow. Nothing was written down, naturally. That’s not how these things work. As Murdoch Sr told Leveson, he’s never asked a prime minister for anything – just, as he could have added, he’s never given
an editor any orders.

The Tories couldn’t deliver. That was hardly their fault and certainly not Hunt’s. After the exposure of how NoW reporters hacked Milly Dowler’s phone, the name Murdoch became toxic and politicians of all parties rushed for the nearest exit whenever a News Corp executive came into sight. News Corp itself had to pull the plug on its BSkyB bid.

But the Murdochs don’t accept excuses. Once the Tories were unable to deliver, they were of no further use. It never does any harm to show politicians the consequences of abandoning the Murdochs and to remind them who, despite everything, are still the masters. The rest of us may think the Murdochs are already ruined but they don’t see it that way and are fighting as hard as ever. Rupert Murdoch will continue in that mode until the very end because, to him, it’s as natural as drawing breath.

Thrill of the Hunt

To understand the import of the emails, it is necessary to read in full the 168-page dossier given to Leveson. Two defences are emerging from the Hunt camp. First, Michel, like all lobbyists and PR men, wishes to impress his boss with the extent of his access to decision-makers. When Michel claimed he had been talking to Hunt, the real contact was with his close adviser Adam Smith, who resigned within hours of the emails’ release.
Second, Hunt publicly stated that he would seek “undertakings” from News Corporation, mainly about the future of Sky News, before deciding if the BSkyB deal should go through. It was natural that there should be regular traffic between his office and Murdoch’s over the nature of those undertakings.

Neither defence stands up. Sometimes twice a day, Michel writes “just spoke to JH”, “just debriefed JH”, “catch-up with JH” or similar. No such words were used when Michel reported, at an earlier stage, on contacts with Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, who was originally due to take the BSkyB decision. Michel refers to conversations with “Vince’s main adviser” who emphasised the importance of “staying within the boundaries of proper conduct during the process” and that “Vince will be keen to make up his own mind and not be influenced by anyone”. Moreover, the email reports to Murdoch, and the attributions to Hunt, range far beyond Sky News. The flavour is of Michel liaising between the generals of allied armies drawing up battle plans: he wants you to attack on the right flank while he looks after the rear.

If Michel is reporting him correctly, Hunt was always egging on News Corp, and that is hardly surprising since he once publicly described himself as a “cheerleader” for the company. Hunt will “welcome” pieces on newspaper comment pages that are sympathetic to the Murdochs. Michel continues:
“He made a plea to try to find as many legal errors as we can in the Ofcom report.”

“He is keen for me to work with his team on the [parliamentary] statement during the course of tomorrow and offer some possible language.”

“He asked if we can start thinking about our [sic] we will handle the public debate and find allies in the media/commentators.”

“He thinks . . . we need to be strong and confident when we go to public consultation.”

Rather partial

Hunt, remember, was supposed to be acting as though he were a judge, impartially considering the evidence. But this idea that ministers can suddenly perform quasi-judicial functions, as they are also required to do in planning, education and a variety of other fields, is one of the sillier aspects of the British constitution. Politicians are tacticians and deal-makers. Considering how things will play with their supporters and opponents, the media, backbenchers, the wider public and so on is second nature to them.

Expecting Hunt to forget that he was a Conservative, with a predisposition to support big business, and that his party leaders had been fawning over the Murdochs, was like expecting a tiger to forget that it likes hunting for meat and demand that it make an impartial judgement between eating a lettuce leaf and a dead animal.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master