News Corporation

Murdoch: 'Nothing inappropriate' about interactions between News Corporation and Hunt's advisors

Credit: By Mike Knell on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Former News International chairman James Murdoch confirmed today News Corporation was "receiving feedback and information" relating to its bid for BSky from the culture secretary's office, but denied the interactions were "covert".

In evidence to the Leveson inquiry today, Murdoch said there was "nothing inappropriate" about the interactions between News Corporation's public affairs channel and Hunt's advisers, adding that comments received from Hunt's office were taken "with a grain of salt".

The inquiry heard that back in November 2010, prior to responsibility for the bid being passed to Hunt, News Corporation's head of public affairs Fréderic Michel said the culture secretary had "received very strong legal advice not to meet [with Murdoch] today" as "any meeting could be referred to and jeopardise the entire process".

Murdoch confirmed he was "displeased with the decision" at the time, and that there was "nothing inappropriate I thought about being able to advocate a reasonable position".

Counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC read from the email from Michel: "My advice would be not to meet him today but could have chat with him on his mobile which is completely fine and I will liaise with his team privately as well."

Murdoch told the inquiry that he did not take this "to mean surreptitiously" but that "a small telephone call would be OK."

He added: "We were simply trying to make the case that a clear process should be put in place around this. I don't think that's influencing, that's saying let us make the side of the argument one way or the other so he can have the inputs to make a decision."

The inquiry heard that on Christmas Eve Michel sent an email which stated he "just spoke to [Jeremy Hunt]" and that he was "very happy for me to be point of contact with [the adviser]".

"Very important to avoid giving the "anti" any opportunity to attack the fairness of the process and free to liaise at that political level," Michel's email adds.

In his own evidence to the inquiry Michel clarifies that emails after 24 December 2010 do not relate to direct contact with Jeremy Hunt, but that phrases such as "JH said" "are no more than shorthand for what I was told by someone within Jeremy Hunt’s office".

Murdoch told the inquiry today that News Corporation was seeking "to understand the right way to liaise with [the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS)]", once responsibility passed to them in December.

Jay asks whether the communication from Hunt's office suggests "indirect contact" would be OK, to which Murdoch said he considered it to be direct contact via Hunt's special advisor and Michel.

"It's nothing inappropriate," he added, and just referred to that fact "peoples' advisers would communicate throughout the process".

Jay went on to question whether the communication between Hunt's advisors and Michel meant News Corporation was "getting insight into Hunt's current thinking" and the "current state of affairs".

For example, on 23 January an email from Michel states that Hunt's view "is that once he announces publicly he has a strong UIL, it's almost game over for the opposition".

In another email on the same day Michel writes: "He will, as he confirmed yesterday, go ahead Tuesday with publication of the Ofcom report, our submission and announce he is looking at UIL. He will not say that he is minded to accept in the statement".

Another email on 31 January from Michel is titled: "Debrief from DCMS on OFT/Ofcom meeting".

The email goes on to say: "The details of the remedy were not discussed. OFT mentioned to JH they were meeting us this afternoon. The conversation was solely on how they can set a process and timetable; but also on whether they can both work together".

Jay asked Murdoch if he felt it was "appropriate" that News Corporation was "receiving insight into Ofcom and the secretary of state".

Murdoch responded that no matter what was communicated back to News Corporation, Hunt appeared to be taking "every single piece of Ofcom's advice, all the way up to when we withdrew transaction" anyway.

"I take all of it with a grain of salt", he said. "I'd seen in earlier emails they will spin one way and then the next. Mr Michel's job is to have that conversation, listen and come back.

"Most of these emails are about the process and concern that appropriate things are being considered and legal arguments were heard around the place.

"This is a large scale transaction that was in the hands, with respect to decision making process, of DCMS, and it was entirely reasonable to try and communicate with the relevant policy makers about the merits of what we were proposing."

The Leveson inquiry has published a copy of the emails from Michel here.

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