The highlight of this afternoon’s evidence by Adam Smith, the former adviser to Jeremy Hunt, was the publication of a memo sent by the culture secretary to the PM before he gained responsibility for the decision on whether to let it proceed.
Here is what Hunt wrote, with what we think of as the important bits in bold (h/t to the Guardian, which put this on its website):
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 multiplatform 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 plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors.
The UK has the chance to lead the way on this as we did in the 80s with the Wapping move 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 into the Mark Thompson/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 [deputy prime minister] should meet to discuss the policy issues that are thrown up as a result.
So Hunt was actively lobbying for the bid before he got handed the quasi-judicial role in deciding whether it should be allowed to proceed. It could be argued there is nothing wrong with this – Hunt had taken a policy stance in his role as culture secretary and was communicating it. It doesn’t look great, however, for one secretary of state to be lobbying another, not to mention the prime minister, on an issue upon which that secretary of state is meant to remain entirely neutral.
What’s more, the memo raises questions about why Cameron then handed the role to Hunt after Cable was caught saying he had “declared war on Mr Murdoch”. If it was not appropriate for Cable to handle it because of his apparent hostility, why should Hunt, a known advocate of the bid, be allowed to handle the decision instead?
Hunt’s defence will be that he was a known supporter of the bill (although we didn’t realise before quite how actively he lobbied on its behalf), but that when handed the decision, he acted entirely within the rules. He will point to the sentence: “It would be totally wrong for the government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm’s length” as evidence of his propriety. Downing Street has insisted he took independent advice and followed it.
My guess is that this will not be the smoking gun that costs Hunt his job – his defence has been weakened, but not fatally undermined. But it does undercut Hunt’s hard-earned reputation as a straight-shooter, and that could be more harmful for his career in the long-term.