Prime Minister David Cameron last night continued to back his beleaguered culture secretary following his appearance before the Leveson inquiry into the conduct of the media.
It emerged that Jeremy Hunt had sent a series of text messages to News Corp executive James Murdoch that indicated his support for the company’s proposed takeover of BSkyB. The texts had continued despite at least two warnings coming from lawyers within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that he should not give any personal opinions on the matter.
Hunt was given the ‘quasi-judicial’ responsibility for the bid after business secretary Vince Cable was caught in a newspaper sting operation saying he intended to declare “war on Murdoch’.
Documents released by the Leveson Inquiry showed how the culture secretary had lobbied colleagues including the finance minister George Osborne and Cameron’s former press secretary Andy Coulson over the handling of the deal.
Osborne has emerged as a key figure in the decision to move the role of scrutinising the bid from Cable to Hunt.
The culture secretary told Leveson that he was concerned about the handling of the bid that was very important, very significant merger in my sector…”
A key date in the bid was December 21, 2010 when the News Corp bid was cleared by the European Commission. Hunt sent a text to Murdoch that said “Great and congrats on Brussels, just Ofcom to go!”
Later that afternoon Cable’s unguarded comments to the undercover reporters were released, not by the Daily Telegraph for whom they worked, but the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston.
Hunt sent a text to Osborne saying that Cable’s remarks would “screw up” the bid. At 4.58 Osborne replied saying “I hope you like the solution!”
An hour later Hunt was handed responsibility for the bid.
Despite the pressure on him it now seems likely Hunt will stay in post until at least the summer, when Cameron is expected to stage a cabinet reshuffle.