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Two accusations hung over Jeremy Hunt’s head when he testified to the Leveson inquiry. The first was that the culture secretary had breached the ministerial code when adjudicating on News Corp’s abandoned bid for BSkyB. The second was that he was less than candid with parliament when explaining his behaviour. He dispelled neither.
True, the bigger charge of bias in News Corp’s favour did not stick. In spite of the “chumminess” evident in communications between Mr Hunt’s office and the media group, nothing emerged to suggest that this had unduly affected the culture secretary’s final decision.
But Mr Hunt seems to have been extraordinarily careless about how the process was handled. While he claimed not to have understood fully the meaning of the term “quasi judicial” when given the role, it is fairly obvious that such a process should treat all interested parties equally. Mr Hunt should not have allowed one of his special advisers, Adam Smith, to give News Corp such preferential access to information.
The culture secretary said that Mr Smith, who has since resigned, acted without his authorisation. This would be a weak excuse even if one accepted it. The fact remains that under the ministerial code, ministers are responsible for the conduct of their advisers.
This casualness seems to have extended to Mr Hunt’s statements to parliament. When News Corp first disclosed the messages to the Leveson inquiry, he told the House of Commons that he had only had “official minuted” contact with News Corp’s main lobbyist, Frederic Michel. Yesterday he admitted to exchanging a number of texts with Mr Michel – including one in which he looked forward to having a coffee with the lobbyist when the quasi-judicial process was over.
The affair raises uncomfortable questions about David Cameron’s judgment. Mr Hunt took on the quasi-judicial role when the business secretary stood aside after making hostile remarks about Rupert Murdoch. It was reckless of Mr Cameron to hand the responsibility to a minister who hours before had been speaking in favour of News Corp. When questions emerged about the process, he should have referred Mr Hunt to the adviser on ministers’ interests.
The prime minister’s forbearance has not helped Mr Hunt, who emerges a diminished figure, his authority undermined by his closeness to the Murdochs. Apart from acting as a human shield for Mr Cameron, it is hard to see what purpose he now serves.