LONDON: Britain’s Culture Secretary sent James Murdoch a message of support for a major takeover on the day he was put in charge of adjudicating on the bid, a public inquiry has heard, piling pressure on a government already accused of colluding with the media boss.
Evidence given to a judicial inquiry today showed that government ministers, including Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Finance Secretary George Osborne, worked frantically one day in 2010 to reassure Murdoch that they supported his $12 billion bid to buy a pay-TV company in which he held a minority stake.
The government’s handling of the News Corp bid for a majority stake in BSkyB has become a key aspect of the controvery over whether James Murdoch and his father Rupert had excessive influence on politicians, enabling them to bypass the regulatory process and promote their business interests.
“Great and congrats on Brussels, just Ofcom to go!” Hunt texted to James Murdoch, referring to a decision by EU regulators in Brussels to approve the BSkyB takeover and to a decision yet to be taken by the British regulator, Ofcom.
Hunt was trying to reassure “a furious” James Murdoch after the minister originally overseeing the takeover, Vince Cable, was removed after being secretly recorded saying he had “declared war” on Murdoch over the bid, the inquiry was told.
When News Corp complained about the government’s conduct, Hunt contacted Osborne and officials in the prime minister’s office to rally support for Murdoch. Hours later Hunt, who had already made it clear that he supported the bid, was put in charge of ruling on the takeover.
“Cld we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? Am seriously worried we are going to screw this up,” Hunt said in one text to Osborne.
Osborne responded that he hoped Hunt “liked the solution”, a reference to the decision to put Hunt in charge of the bid.
The opposition Labour Party called on Hunt to resign after evidence submitted to the Leveson inquiry revealed that a Hunt aide leaked sensitive information to News Corp after Hunt had been put in charge of the matter.
Labour have accused the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government of wanting to approve the deal to ensure they continued to receive favourable treatment from Murdoch’s newspapers in Britain.
The evidence has also raised questions over Prime Minister David Cameron’s judgment in putting Hunt in charge of the bid when he knew the culture secretary supported it and thought it should go ahead.