Hunt's Ex-Aide In 'Web Of Manipulation'
Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's ex-aide Adam Smith quit over the BSkyB takeover bid after being "drawn into a web of manipulation and exaggeration", the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
The culture department's most senior civil servant Jonathan Stephens said Mr Smith was "young, able and well-intentioned" but conceded his contact with News Corp had been a "calamity" for the department.
Mr Stephens told the inquiry into media ethics that he had advised Mr Hunt to sack Mr Smith in the wake of the correspondence with News Corp.
Mr Smith, 30, was in daily contact through hundreds of emails, phone calls and text messages with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, as the company was bidding to take over full control of BSkyB.
Mr Stephens said: "How it happened I don't know, but the judgment I have made is that, sadly, Mr Smith personally, I believe against his will and intentions, was drawn into almost what seems to me to be a sort of web of manipulation and exaggeration, and was drawn inadvertently beyond what he intended to do or what he wanted to do."
Mr Stephens also told the inquiry that he recalled a conversation with Mr Hunt's officials saying the minister had asked if he could express a view on the takeover bid when Mr Cable was still in charge of it.
The inquiry heard lawyers sent a note stating: "Whilst there's nothing legally which normally precludes the Secretary of State CMS from making recommendations to the Secretary of State BIS to inform the latter's decision as to whether to refer the public interest considerations in this merger to the Competition Commission, it would be unwise to do so."
In his evidence before Lord Justice Leveson earlier on Friday, Mr Smith said he was told to resign by his boss.
Mr Smith said the Culture Secretary had initially reassured him that he had only been doing his job and not to worry on the evening the documents were published.
But the following day Mr Hunt spent the morning in meetings before calling in Mr Smith and telling him "everyone here thinks you need to go", he told the inquiry.
Mr Smith repeatedly denied there had been anything inappropriate in the substance of his communications with News Corporation.
But he conceded that he had been "too flippant" at times.
He said: "In hindsight, the tone of the language that I used was not appropriate."But I think, in terms of the content, what I said to Mr Michel had either been expressed to Mr Murdoch through meetings and letters, or was known to Mr Michel from the correspondence they were having with Ofcom and the OFT."
The inquiry heard that Mr Michel was told the media giant's BSkyB takeover bid would go ahead once plans to spin off Sky News were accepted.
But Mr Smith said he did not remember telling Mr Michel it would be "game over" for opponents of the buyout after the proposal to make the news channel a separately listed company was announced.At the time, other media groups criticised News Corp's intention to buy the 61% share of BSkyB it did not already own, claiming it would concentrate too much power in Rupert Murdoch's hands.
Mr Michel, News Corp's former director of public affairs in Europe, sent an email to fellow executives on January 23 last year based on a conversation with Mr Smith.
He wrote: "His (Mr Hunt's) view is that once he announces publicly he has a strong UIL (undertaking in lieu, namely the Sky News spin-off plans), it's almost game over for the opposition."Mr Smith said much of the lobbyist's email was factually accurate but disputed its tone.He told the inquiry: "I think that that's a sort of colourful explanation of the process."
The inquiry has released a memo sent by Mr Hunt to the Prime Minister, arguing the case for News Corp's takeover of BSkyB weeks before he was given quasi-judicial oversight of the bid.The note, dated November 19, 2010, warned that Business Secretary Vince Cable's decision to refer the bid to regulator Ofcom could leave the Government "on the wrong side of media policy".
Earlier on Friday, Mr Cameron defended giving Mr Hunt responsibility for the decision on News Corp's takeover bid.
"The key thing was it wasn't what he had said in the past, it was how he was going to do the job," he told ITV's This Morning programme.
He added: "He did act impartially because he took independent advice at every stage and he followed the independent advice at every stage.
"The crucial point, the really crucial point, is did Jeremy Hunt carry out his role properly with respect to BSkyB and I believe that he did."