In the light of what we learned yesterday about Jeremy Hunt’s strong views that the News Corp bid for BSkyB should go ahead, it is interesting to read these guidelines from the Competition Commission on the standards to which their staff should be held.
The Competition Commission, was of course, one of the bodies that could have ended up examining the bid, just as Hunt was when he was asked to make a “quasi-judicial” judgement on whether it should go ahead.
The CC tells its staff (emphasis mine):
There may be instances where a CC member or staff member has or appears to have prejudged the outcome of an inquiry. Circumstances in which prejudgement might arise would include those in which an article had been written or speech made expressing strong views about a particular merger or market.
And what should happen if that person had expressed such a view? It would be counted as a conflict of interest, say the guidelines. They add:
Where there is any risk of actual bias [the CC] should not seek to appoint a member if that is the case.
It seems clear from these that if Jeremy Hunt worked for the Competition Commission, there is no way he would have been allowed to rule on the BSkyB takeover.
There is, however, an important caveat. As the culture secretary, he was perfectly entitled, if not duty-bound, to have a view about this merger, and the important thing is that he put such concerns to one side when making the quasi-judicial decision. He argues that he did. His critics say his refusal to heed the advice of Ofcom and refer the matter to the Competition Commission shows clear evidence of bias.
Either way, given the possibility of him being accused of bias in this way, would it have not been better for the prime minister to hand the decision to someone else? It’s what the Competition Commission would have done.