Leveson Inquiry: The Hunt is on

 

Update added below at 10am

Up until now, Lord Justice Leveson has only held the future of the British press in his hands.

Today, despite all his protests to the contrary, his inquiry may determine the fate of the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

The judge insists that it is not his job to put any minister in the dock and that he certainly will not be giving his verdict on whether there have been any breaches of the ministerial code.

Nevertheless, the prime minister has made it clear that he sees today's hearing as the moment when Mr Hunt must defend his much criticised handling of News Corp's £8bn bid for total control of BSkyB.

The culture secretary has, I'm told, submitted more than 160 pages of internal memos, emails and text message transcripts to the Leveson Inquiry.

I understand that he will insist that, despite having originally been a cheerleader not just for Rupert Murdoch but also for his bid, he acted in ways which frustrated it rather than accelerated it once he was made the minister in charge.

He will claim that he referred it to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom when told by officials that it wasn't necessary to do so.

He is likely to face questions about why he did not follow Ofcom's advice to refer the bid to the Competition Commission.

He is likely to reply that he was given legal advice that he had first to consider News Corp's offer to spin off Sky News so as to deal with so-called plurality issues.

The culture secretary is likely to be asked how he can claim to have been unaware of the scale or nature of the contact between News Corp and his political adviser, Adam Smith - who resigned once his flood of emails and texts were revealed.

I understand that Jeremy Hunt originally believed that his adviser had done nothing wrong and told friends he would resign himself rather than letting a junior official resign for him.

The prime minister shows no sign yet of wanting to force him out - believing that however bad things may now look, Mr Hunt didn't actually do anything wrong or anything which helped the Murdochs and their bid.

Labour argue that - even before today's hearing - it is evident the culture secretary should go as he is in breach of the ministerial code for failing to supervise his adviser, and for misleading the House of Commons when he wrongly asserted he had published all contacts between his department and News Corp - as well as claiming never to have intervened to affect the outcome of the bid.

UPDATE 10am:

It seems increasingly clear that Jeremy Hunt's allies are trying to separate out what he did in handling the bid from how it looked, how he controlled his special adviser and how he handled parliament - ie his quasi judicial role from his ministerial responsibilities.

One reason for this I am hearing is that emails may be released today showing direct contact between Hunt and News Corp after he took responsibility for the bid.

One problem with his defence is that the ministerial code makes clear that perception matters, control of your special adviser matters and so too does giving accurate information to Parliament

 
Nick Robinson Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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