A lobbyist for News Corp exchanged 191 phone calls, 158 emails and 800 texts with the office of the British Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, during the company’s bid for the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, the Leveson inquiry heard last night.
But News’s head of communications, Fred Michel, said he could not assess whether Mr Hunt had been supportive of the bid at the time.
He said that although he never met Mr Hunt during the bid process, he had exchanged a small number of text messages with him. “Nothing inappropriate never [sic] took place,” he said.
Mr Hunt’s job is under threat following revelations at previous hearings of the Leveson inquiry into media ethics that Mr Michel wrote 164 pages of emails to his boss, James Murdoch, which seemed to suggest Mr Hunt was secretly on-side with the £8 billion Murdoch bid. Mr Hunt, who is also Media Minister, was meant to be impartially overseeing the bid process.
Labour has accused the minister of being a “cheerleader” for the Murdochs’ now abandoned bid and have called for Mr Hunt to resign over the affair.
The lawyer assisting the inquiry, Robert Jay, QC, asked Mr Michel about an email he wrote in November 2010 telling Mr Murdoch that Mr Hunt had to pull out of a planned meeting to discuss the bid with Mr Murdoch because it would undermine the minister’s quasi-judicial responsibility to be impartial.
The email said: “Jeremy is very frustrated about it, but the permanent secretary has now become involved.”
Mr Michel told the inquiry there was “frustration on both sides” that the meeting could not take place and that he wanted to arrange for Mr Murdoch and Mr Hunt to speak over the phone to “apologise to each other”.
Last month Mr Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, resigned over the email revelations. Mr Smith – who was due to give evidence overnight – said that in his communications with Mr Michel he had acted without Mr Hunt’s authorisation and he had allowed the impression to be created of too close a relationship between News Corp and the Department for Media.
Mr Smith said at the time: “I do not recognise all of what Fred Michel said, but nonetheless I appreciate that my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department, contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary that this needed to be a fair and scrupulous process.”
Mr Michel told the inquiry he did not exaggerate in his emails in order to make himself look better to his employer: “I don’t need to puff myself up.”
He said he might have written some emails with a view to improving morale at News over the bid but that this happened on only a few occasions.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.