Q&A: Jeremy Hunt at the Leveson Inquiry
- 31 May 2012
- From the section UK Politics
Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt has appeared before the Leveson Inquiry. Here's some background information:
What is the Leveson Inquiry?
It is a public inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in Britain. Lord Justice Leveson was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to head the inquiry following revelations that the News of the World newspaper had hacked the mobile phones of celebrities and others, including the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The judge is examining relations between the press, politicians and police, and also looking at the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International and other media organisations.
What does it hope to achieve?
Lord Justice Leveson is expected to recommend a new regulatory regime but it will be down to the government to say how, and whether, this will come into force.
Why are politicians being called to give evidence?
Lord Justice Leveson is also examining the relationship between the press and politicians amid claims it has become unhealthily close and is damaging British democracy.
Who is Jeremy Hunt?
The 45-year-old culture secretary , a Conservative MP, is a close ally of David Cameron. Before entering politics he made a fortune by setting up the Hotcourses guides to university and college courses.
Why was he asked to appear at the inquiry?
He is in charge of the government's media policy, so the broad issues discussed by the Leveson Inquiry are part of his remit. In December 2010, after Business Secretary Vince Cable was recorded saying he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch, Mr Hunt was given responsibility for judging whether Mr Murdoch's News Corp should be allowed to take full control of broadcaster BSkyB. The bid was a high-profile one, with critics saying they had concerns it would have concentrated too much power in one media group and harmed competition.
Are there any questions about Mr Hunt's role in the takeover?
Yes. Unlike Mr Cable, the culture secretary has been accused of having too close a relationship with News Corp. The Leveson Inquiry has released emails showing Mr Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith was in frequent contact with the company during the BSkyB takeover process. Mr Smith was forced to quit after admitting the contact was inappropriate. Labour has also demanded Mr Hunt's resignation, but he has urged critics to listen to his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry before forming a judgement. The inquiry has also released a series of text message exchanges between Mr Hunt and News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, which continued after Mr Hunt took over responsibility for the takeover process. They suggest a close friendship.
What is wrong with that?
Nothing, if it is proved that Mr Hunt put his friendship with Mr Michel and his openly declared belief in the positive influence of the Murdoch empire to one side when he was given the job of ruling on the bid. Mr Hunt's critics claim his contact with BSkyB executives shows he could not have acted in the impartial "quasi-judicial" way that the role demanded.
Was there one question that would have decided Mr Hunt's future?
Yes. Prime Minister David Cameron had said he would take immediate action if it became clear during the course of Mr Hunt's testimony that he had broken the ministerial code - the rules governing the conduct of government ministers. The rules state: "The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the minister who made the appointment." Mr Hunt's critics maintain that if his special adviser had to resign for inappropriate conduct then Mr Hunt should go too. But Mr Cameron confirmed after the hearing that the culture secretary would not face an investigation over whether he broke the code.
What does the ministerial code say?
There are two relevant sections:
1) The code says: "The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the minister who made the appointment." Mr Hunt's critics say that if his special adviser had to resign for inappropriate conduct then Mr Hunt should go too, but it will be down to the prime minister not Lord Justice Leveson to make that judgement.
2) The code says: "It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament… Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the PM." This relates to the question of whether Mr Hunt misled Parliament in his statement to the Commons on 25 April when he said he had had "zero" contact with News Corp about the BSkyB bid.
What has Mr Hunt said about these accusations?
He has insisted he acted with "total integrity" and "scrupulous fairness" throughout the takeover process. His special adviser, Adam Smith, who resigned last month, has told the inquiry that Mr Hunt was not close to News Corp. The top civil servant in Mr Hunt's department has also vouched for his impartiality.
What happened to the takeover bid?
News Corp dropped its attempt to gain full control of BSkyB in summer 2011 following the phone-hacking scandal, which also led to the News of the World being closed down.
What does any of this mean for David Cameron?
Downing Street has stressed that the prime minister was not involved in the BSkyB bid decision but critics have questioned his judgement in handing the role to Jeremy Hunt, given his publicly declared praise for Rupert Murdoch's companies. Mr Cameron - who has said all politicians got "too close" to media barons - has also found his own contacts with Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives coming under the spotlight.