Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt allowed to rule on Murdoch's Sky bid despite claims of bias by Labour

Jeremy Hunt: Series of meetings

Jeremy Hunt: Series of meetings

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell last night cleared Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt to rule on the controversial BSkyB takeover, despite Labour claims of bias.

Shadow business secretary John Denham wrote to Sir Gus asking whether Mr Hunt was a ‘fit and proper person’ to determine media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s bid for full control of the channel.

He pointed to what he described as ‘prejudicial statements’ previously made by the Culture Secretary appearing to support the takeover.

While in Opposition and in government, Mr Hunt has made a series of BSkyB friendly statements and has also had meetings with senior executives from the media giant.

While a shadow minister, he even flew to the United States where he met representatives of News Corp, as well as other media organisations.

Responsibility for media regulation was hurriedly transferred to Mr Hunt this week from Business Secretary Vince Cable after he was secretly recorded claiming he had ‘declared war’ on Mr Murdoch.

The tycoon’s media conglomerate, News Corporation, has launched a £7.5billion takeover bid for the 61 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting which it does not already own.

Sir Gus dismissed Labour’s concerns, insisting the transfer in responsibility for media competition to the Culture Secretary was ‘precisely to ensure there was no conflict of interest’ regarding Mr Cable.

He revealed that David Cameron had sought his advice about whether there was any legal impediment to the shift in ministerial responsibilities before making a decision. ‘I took advice from lawyers and, in providing advice that there was no such impediment I was, of course, aware of the former statements from Mr Hunt which you cite,’ Sir Gus wrote to Mr Denham.

‘I am satisfied that those statements do not amount to a pre-judgment of the case in question; indeed the third quotation explicitly states that Mr Hunt would not want to “second guess what regulators might decide”.’

Government sources say that in reality, a decision on the deal now lies in the hands of media regulator Ofcom. Mr Cable referred the case to the regulator on the grounds of a potential threat to the diversity of media ownership.

Following the storm over the Business Secretary’s remarks, Mr Hunt is highly unlikely to court another row by overruling Ofcom, whatever its verdict, said a source.

It emerged last night that News Corporation has pulled an expensive advertising campaign to lobby for the buyout planned for the New Year.

Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil told Sky News that the campaign had been shelved because Mr Murdoch was now confident the deal would go through.

Jeremy Hunt on Murdoch panel
 

Mr Denham said: ‘In respect of the Cabinet Secretary’s remarks about Jeremy Hunt, I have to say there is an issue here about public confidence.

‘The Cabinet Secretary’s letter makes clear that there was so much doubt about Jeremy Hunt’s suitability for this role that they were forced to consult top lawyers.’

‘It is very hard to see how any decision Jeremy Hunt makes will enjoy complete confidence.

‘What Labour has always asked for in this case is that both sides are given a fair hearing – and are seen to be given a fair hearing.’

Labour is likely to focus on the Culture Secretary’s links with the Murdoch empire. Mr Hunt met a member of the Murdoch family shortly after News Corp began its takeover bid for BSkyB.

It launched its initial bid on June 10 and the minister met Rupert Murdoch’s son James – who is Sky chairman and News Corp’s European and Asian chief – 18 days later.

Mr Hunt met Jeremy Darroch, the chief executive of BSkyB, the following month, according to a written answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Labour MP Luciana Berger.

Of the June meeting, a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: ‘I can confirm that this was an informal first meeting between Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State and James Murdoch, and there was no written agenda or briefing.’

The Culture Secretary also attended a dinner hosted by News Corp on May 20, within weeks of coming into office, with his aide Adam Smith. Mr Murdoch was one of the first visitors to Downing Street after David Cameron became Prime Minister in May.

On July 12, communications minister Ed Vaizey had lunch with Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, at its Wapping headquarters.

However, sources close to News Corp say it had far more contact with officials and ministers in the Labour government than it does with the Coalition. Other media companies have regular contact with government ministers.

Mr Hunt’s remarks may open the way for an attempt to seek a judicial review by opponents of the Murdoch takeover of BSkyB, if it gets the go-ahead.

Media organisations, including the Daily Telegraph, BBC, Daily Mail and the Guardian, have urged the Government to intervene in Mr Murdoch’s bid to take full control of the broadcaster.

 

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