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A new dossier of evidence released by the Leveson inquiry into press ethics has revealed the full extent of News Corp’s chief lobbyist’s ties to Whitehall’s corridors of power, from chummy text exchanges with Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, to requesting favourable ministerial statements on phone hacking.
Fred Michel, News Corp’s head of public affairs, is shown to be in regular contact with senior government figures across multiple departments at all hours of the day and night in the thousands of pages of texts and emails published on Friday night.
The intimate nature of many of the messages will intensify pressure on Mr Hunt and other officials to explain their relationship with Mr Michel, and whether Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media empire was granted favourable treatment by the government during its aborted £8.3bn bid for full control of BSkyB.
Mr Michel and Mr Hunt, for example, refer to each other as “daddy”, “mon ami” and “papa” in some exchanges – a reference to the fact that their children were born at the same hospital on the same day.
In another, the two men joke about the culture secretary’s decision to abolish the UK Film Council: “Be strong! Even Clint Eastwood can’t stop it,’’ Mr Michel says. Mr Hunt replies: “If they play Dirty Harry, so can I!”
Mr Hunt is already facing calls to step down over the extent of communications between his team and Mr Michel during the BSkyB bid, which the culture secretary was responsible for reviewing impartially.
Earlier on Friday, Jonathan Stephens, the DCMS’s top civil servant, revealed to the Leveson inquiry that Downing Street had received legal advice that Mr Hunt’s previous public remarks might appear to pre-judge the BSkyB deal on the day it handed him responsibility for it. He took over after Vince Cable, the business secretary, was stripped of the role for telling undercover reporters that he had “declared war” on Mr Murdoch.
However, the dossier released last night also reveals the closeness of Mr Michel’s ties to advisers to other senior figures, including David Cameron, the prime minister, and George Osborne, the chancellor.
A text exchange with Rupert Harrison, the chancellor’s chief of staff, from last year, shows that Mr Michel tried to recruit a “senior government person” to speak up for News Corp as the deepening phone-hacking scandal at News Corp’s News of the World tabloid threatened to derail the BSkyB bid.
“Hi. Quick question for your advice: do you think it would be possible/helpful to get a senior government person to come out condemning strongly phone hacking, ask for thorough police investigation but insisting on the need for the legal process [surrounding the bid] to be followed? Incredible that a business decision on a massive takeover could be left to parliament to oppose/influence no? Hope all is well. Fred.”
In another message to Mr Harrison, Mr Michel asks if the chancellor could write to Mr Cable about the economic importance of News Corp’s bid for BSkyB, offering to “help with the content’’ of any letter.
“Rupert, just spoke with James,’’ writes Mr Michel on November 9 2010. “It would be helpful if George were to send a letter to Vince on our Sky merger and its economic importance, separate from the Ofcom process. Do you think it is a possibility? I can of course help with the content. Best, Fred.”