Leveson Inquiry: Jeremy Hunt fair on BSkyB, says top civil servant

Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens says Jeremy Hunt had an "open mind" on News Corp's BSkyB bid

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's main aim was to "reach a fair and unbiased decision" on News Corp's bid for broadcaster BSkyB, his department's most senior civil servant has said.

Jonathan Stephens told the Leveson Inquiry Mr Hunt had been scrupulous in carrying out his quasi-judicial role.

A memo from Mr Hunt to David Cameron revealed he supported the deal, prior to overseeing the bid.

But the prime minister has said he has no regrets over the appointment.

Mr Smith resigned in April after admitting he had become too close to News Corporation during the bid process.

'Marked change'

Permanent Secretary to the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Mr Stephens said he had been "particularly struck" by Mr Hunt's understanding of the proper processes required of his department when he took on responsibility for the bid.

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The really crucial point is did Jeremy Hunt carry out his role properly with respect to BSkyB and I believe that he did”

End Quote David Cameron

"To reach a fair and unbiased decision was the secretary of state's overriding concern to my observation, throughout the process," he said.

Mr Stephens added "there was a marked change in the natural style and approach" of Mr Hunt after he took on the role.

Meanwhile, Mr Cameron told ITV's This Morning that he did not "regret" asking Mr Hunt to rule on the bid and the culture secretary had acted "impartially".

The PM said: "The really crucial point is did Jeremy Hunt carry out his role properly with respect to BSkyB and I believe that he did."

The inquiry has called former Prime Minister Tony Blair to give evidence on Monday and Mr Hunt on Thursday.

'Not impartial arbiter'

Labour is demanding to know why the prime minister handed the adjudication over bid by Rupert Murdoch's company to buy the remaining shares it did not already own in BSkyB to Mr Hunt.

Shadow ministers argue that Mr Hunt was not an "impartial arbiter" on the deal, and has renewed calls for him to resign.

Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman said: "David Cameron might think that he can brazenly say 'no regrets' and this will somehow draw a line under it, but people will not accept that.

David Cameron says he has no regrets over appointing Jeremy Hunt - clip courtesy of This Morning, ITV1

"It was evident that he gave the decision on the Murdoch bid to Jeremy Hunt when he knew Jeremy Hunt was not impartially judging the bid but was in favour of the bid."

But Downing Street has said the memo sent by Mr Hunt at the time Business Secretary Vince Cable was in charge of overseeing the bid was "entirely consistent" with the culture secretary's public view.

Mr Hunt's memo, written on 19 November 2010, stated that News Corp executive James Murdoch was "furious" about Mr Cable's handling of the matter.

He told Mr Cameron it would be "totally wrong to cave in" to opponents of the deal and said the UK had the chance to "lead the way" if the BSkyB bid went ahead.

The memo also said the UK's media sector "would suffer for years" if the deal was blocked. But it went on to say it "would be totally wrong for the government to get involved in a competition issue".

News Corp unveiled its bid for BSkyB in June 2010 but abandoned it in July 2011 amid outrage over the phone-hacking scandal at its News of the World newspaper.

'End of my tether'

Earlier on Friday, Mr Hunt's former aide, Adam Smith, told the Leveson Inquiry that he had been "bombarded" with information from a News Corp lobbyist during the bid process.

Mr Smith said departmental officials knew of his contact with Fred Michel but "I don't think they knew of the volume or extent".

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This is ammunition for the culture secretary's critics who say his mind was made up to give the Murdochs what they wanted”

End Quote Nick Robinson BBC political editor

He had been aware Mr Michel was trying to extract information during News Corp's attempt to takeover broadcaster BSkyB.

But he said: "I would use my judgement on what to say and what not to say."

He told the inquiry he had "no specific instructions" on the limits to information he could provide to News Corporation.

But he said a lot of what he said to Mr Michel, the lobbyist would have already been told.

"I suppose I took my sort of lead from that," he said.

"It wasn't uncommon to give advance notice of certain statements but I would use my judgement on what to say or what not to say."

Mr Smith said that officials at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport knew the lobbyist was his point of contact at News Corp and would have mentioned Mr Michel by name to Mr Hunt on the "odd occasion".

Counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC went on to question Mr Smith over emails sent by Mr Michel referring to his contact with "JH" which he has said was shorthand for the culture department.

Mr Jay referred to a text sent by Mr Smith to Mr Michel on 2 June 2011.

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Many wise colleagues on Twitter waiting for Jay to ask - if this was all so well handled Mr Smith why did you resign?”

End Quote

It read: "Over the last few days i have been causing a lot of chaos and moaning from people here on your behalf. I should have an update later today."

Mr Smith said he regretted that text the most but had been nearing "the end of my tether".

"I certainly wasn't doing anything on their behalf and in hindsight I shouldn't have sent it, but it was an attempt to mollify... and get him off my back."

Mr Michel told the inquiry on Thursday that he viewed Mr Smith as representing the culture secretary in the same way he represented News Corporation.

However, Mr Smith said he did not consider he was speaking for Mr Hunt on the details of the bid in his dealings with Mr Michel.

"I wouldn't have been doing my job if I had had to run and check what Mr Hunt thought about every stage of the process," he said.

"In this particular bid, I would argue that I was actually just being more of a buffer and a channel of communications rather than representing Mr Hunt's views to anybody."

'Web of manipulation'

Speaking about the role of Mr Smith in this process, Mr Stephens told the Leveson Inquiry that - as permanent secretary - he was not responsible for the conduct or discipline of special advisors, and he could not dismiss them.

Adam Smith: "I would use my judgement on what to say and what not to say"

He described the position of a special adviser as "rather unique", adding that Mr Hunt and Mr Smith had a "close relationship".

Mr Stephens said he had later been greatly surprised at the degree of contact between Mr Smith and Mr Michel, and stressed that, in his opinion, the nature, context and extent of the emails were wholly inappropriate.

However, the permanent secretary added he had a "high regard" for Mr Smith and regretted what had happened and believed that "against his will, he was drawn into a web of manipulation and exaggeration, and was inadvertently drawn beyond what he intended to do or wanted to do".

Asked if he now believed he had had too much confidence in the judgement of Mr Smith, Mr Stephens said: "With the benefit of hindsight, clearly yes...

"At the time, I thought he showed good understanding of the role, good judgement and was careful in how he undertook the role."

He agreed with Lord Justice Leveson that the episode had been a "calamity" for the Department of Culture, and assured him that guidance had been issued in the immediate aftermath.

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