In which I have a look at the recent appearance of the Culture Secretary, Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt MP at the Leveson Inquiry into Press and Media ethics. Did he mislead the house of commons?
A bit of background information.
The Leveson Inquiry was called by the current Prime Minister David Cameron to examine the culture, ethics and practices of the UK Press in the light of revelations about phone hacking by certain reporters, as broken by Guardian Journalist Nick Davies. Press Barons, Politicians, Journalists and former Prime Minsters have been called to give evidence in an inquiry that has provided plenty of shocks, especially about the relationship between successive UK governments and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
This relationship between the UK Govt and News Corp became particularly important when News Corp wanted take over the UK satellite TV operator, BSkyB. The UK (and European) governments had to rule on whether or not this broke both competition rules and whether or not this would break the media ownership rules of the UK media regulator, OfCom.
Originally, the Business Minster, Dr Vince Cable MP was in charge of this decision – however, when he was taped saying he was “waging war” on Rupert Murdoch, he (quite rightly) had this role stripped off him for bias. This role was then passed to the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP.
The bias issue is important here – the role of arbitor in a case such as this requires the MP to act in a quasi-judicial manner – i.e. – no party political or political considerations should come into account – the MP should be entirely impartial. Whether or not MPs are capable of acting impartially is a separate matter.
Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary
This dangerous spoonerism of a minister was called to give evidence in the Leveson Inquiry earlier this week. Previously we had heard from James (son of Rupert) Murdoch about close ties that News Corp officials had had with Hunt during the deliberations with BSkyB. Hunt’s Special adviser Adam Smith ‘resigned’ when is was revealed that he had an inappropriately close relationship with News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel. The day after James Murdoch gave evidence at the Leveson enquiry (some of which looked very bad for Jeremy Hunt) – Hunt gave a statement and answered questions in the house of commons to defend his actions and deny some allegations that had been levelled at him (held on April 25th, 2012)
One exchange during this debate went as follows:
Richard Graham (Conservative MP for Gloucester)”
We have heard today that there are, indeed, many cases in political history of lobbyists with more of Walter Mitty than the truth to their claims. Perhaps the Secretary of State can help the House today. Fred Michel claimed he had 54 separate conversations with the Secretary of State; will my right hon. Friend confirm how many conversations he did have?
The answer is Zero.
Here we have Jeremy Hunt flatly denying having any conversations with Fred(eric) Michel, the News Corp lobbyist. Reading the full debate – it appears that Hunt’s basic defense is that Fred Michel has embellished (i.e. lied about) his relationship with Hunt in order to curry favour with his News Corp bosses. Hunt said that all Michel’s contact with him was via his advisor Adam Smith.
During his evidence at Leveson, given on the morning[PDF] and the afternoon[PDF] of the 31st of May, Jeremy Hunt went on to talk about conversations he had with, erm, Fred Michel. Hunt’s contributions are in bold:
4 Q. There was another meeting at the Conservative Party
5 conference in that year in October 2010. We see that
6 from annex B again at 05626. This time it was
7 Rebekah Brooks and Frederic Michel. Can you recall
8 whether the BSkyB bid was discussed on that occasion?
9 A. Yes, it was.
22 Q. The only evidence we have as to what was discussed is in
23 the file of text messages, which is supplementary bundle
24 volume 2, tab TT, 01847. A text timed at 15.49 on
25 16 November. Mr Michel to you. Do you see that one?
1 A. Yes.
2 Q. “Thanks for the call with James today, greatly
3 appreciated. Will work with Adam to make sure we can
4 send you helpful arguments. Warm regards, Fred.”
5 And your reply almost immediately is:
7 We can see that?
8 A. Yes.
9 Q. So it’s reasonable to suppose that the call was
10 successful to the extent that some reassurance was given
11 by you to Mr Murdoch insofar as you could give it. Is
12 that fair?
18 Q. Okay. Can we go back, please, to the file of text
19 messages, which is the tab at the end of this second
20 supplementary bundle. We’re going to look first of all
21 at the post 22 December 2010 messages between you and
22 Mr Michel and we can pick these up on page 08148,
23 Mr Hunt. Are you with me?
24 A. Yes.
25 Q. Which really start at the very end of the last page. On
1 20 January, the date of your second meeting with
2 News Corp, do you see —
3 A. Sorry, which date was that?
4 Q. 20 January 2011, bottom of page 01847.
5 A. Sorry, I’d turned over the page.
6 Q. You have to turn over the page to see the time. It’s at
7 20.53. Mr Michel says:
8 “Great to see you today.”
9 Then there’s a reference to your babies, so
10 obviously we pass over that, it’s been redacted.
11 “Warm regards.”
12 And then you at a quarter to midnight text him:
13 “Good to see u too. Hope u understand why we have
14 to have the long process. Let’s meet up when things are
16 Is that not giving a somewhat positive message,
17 Mr Hunt?
18 A. Not at all. I’m just saying to him we have a long
19 process, hope you understand why that’s necessary.
20 Q. Then he replies the following morning — for him he’s
21 slightly late coming back to you, but never mind:
22 “We do and will do our very best to be constructive
23 and helpful throughout. You were very impressive
24 yesterday. And yes let’s meet up when it’s all done.
25 Warmest regards, Fred.”
And so on. In the transcripts of the morning and afternoon sessions there are 119 mentions of ‘Michel’ – some of them are regarding discussions between Adam Smith and Fred Michel – but some of them are about discussions & conversations between Hunt and Michel, and some of them AFTER Hunt took over the BSkyB bid role from Vince cable (late december, 2010).
Now, I am not a politician, or a lawyer, but clearly Hunt interacted with Michel in all manner of ways.
Either he lied in the house of commons (a breach of the ministerial code) or he lied under oath, i.e. committed perjury.
If he breached the ministerial code, section 1.2.c states that:
It is of paramount importance that Ministers give
accurate and truthful information to Parliament,
correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest
opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead
Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to
the Prime Minister;
If he lied under oath in the Leveson Inquiry, he is guilty of Perjury, the punishment for which can be as much as 7 years in prison.
Maybe this is a overly simplistic, empirical, scientist’s way of looking at things. Maybe there are nuances I have missed. But I can’t see how Hunt’s answer to the question in the HoC on the 25th April 2012 can be interpreted as anything other than a falsehood.