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Hunt Was 'Worried' BSkyB Bid Would Fail
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will not be referred to the Ministerial Code adviser by Prime Minister David Cameron, Number 10 has revealed.
The announcement came after the Leveson Inquiry heard Mr Hunt told George Osborne he was "seriously worried" the Government was going to "screw up" the BSkyB deal hours before he was given control over the bid.
Jeremy Hunt was questioned at the inquiry about his office's links with News Corp - which wanted to take over the broadcaster - and whether he was the right person to decide in a quasi-judicial role on the bid.
The inquiry heard he sent text messages to Chancellor George Osborne after receiving a phone call from James Murdoch questioning the legitimacy of the process when secret recordings of Business Secretary Vince Cable "declaring war" on News Corporation emerged.
Timed at 4.08pm, Mr Hunt's message to Mr Osborne read: "Could we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? I am seriously worried we are going to screw this up. Jeremy."
He immediately sent a second, saying: "Just been called by James M. His lawyers are meeting now and saying it calls into question legitimacy of whole process from beginning. 'acute bias' etc."
The embattled Culture Secretary previously conceded he was "sympathetic rather than supportive" of the bid by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.
He told the inquiry that BSkyB was "the biggest merger the media industry had ever seen in the UK" and on which "thousands of jobs depended".
He said he was "broadly sympathetic" in his personal opinion of the bid and did not view it as having a major impact on media plurality.
But he insisted he did "not support" the bid and oversaw the process with "scrupulous fairness".
"I set aside my sympathies and set up a process to ensure my sympathies would not inform my decision on the BSkyB bid," he said.
Mr Hunt admitted he did not welcome legal advice that he should not be involved in the process.
He said, in hindsight, he thought officials should have been present and "taking notes" at meetings with News Corp "given the number of conspiracy theories".
He also suggested he regretted text messages he exchanged with senior figures from News Corp.
"I think probably now I wouldn't take the same view and would just avoid all text messages," he said.
"It was just me being courteous."
Mr Hunt told the inquiry he sent a text message of congratulations to James Murdoch, who was the chairman of News International at the time, after the European Commission approved the BSkyB bid - and just hours before the Culture Secretary was given responsibility for media competition issues.
It read: "Great news on Brussels just Ofcom to go."
The text was sent shortly before 1pm on December 21, 2010.
At around 6pm on the same day, Downing Street announced that responsibility for media policy and competition was passing from Business Secretary Vince Cable to Mr Hunt.
Asked by the barrister representing Lord Justice Leveson if he would have sent the text at 4.58pm on that day, Mr Hunt replied: "No, I don't think I would."
Prime Minister David Cameron ruled that Mr Cable would play no further role in the bid after Mr Cable claimed to have "declared war" on the News Corp media empire run by James Murdoch's father Rupert.
Mr Hunt, who is facing calls from opposition MPs to resign, has been waiting for weeks to tell his side of the story to Lord Justice Leveson.
His evidence follows the release of hundreds of emails and other data, showing communications between his office and News Corp, at a time when the media company was bidding for full control of BSkyB, the owner of Sky News.
Speaking on Jeff Randall Live, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham said: "I think there is a strong possibility there has been a breach of the ministerial code and I do think it should be properly investigated."
The row has engulfed the Department of Culture Media and Sport, and already resulted in the resignation of Mr Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith.
Mr Hunt was asked about what contact he authorised between Mr Smith and Fred Michel, the head of public affairs for News Corporation in Europe.
He told the inquiry he did not know Mr Michel very well, saying he had "a few cups of coffee with him" but that they "didn't socialise together".
He said he enjoyed a close six-year professional relationship with Mr Smith but insisted he had not considered him to be acting as a spokesman for him in discussions with Mr Michel.
"I did not see Mr Smith as being someone who was telling me what News Corp thought or telling News Corp what I thought.
"I saw him as an official point of contact in the process, someone News Corp could contact if they had concerns."
Mr Hunt said Mr Michel sent 542 text messages to Mr Smith, which amounted to around five a day.
"We didn't anticipate that at all," said Mr Hunt, adding there was a "degree of pushiness" about Mr Michel.
Mr Hunt had asked to testify immediately after the email controversy broke last month, but Lord Justice Leveson was not willing to bring forward his appearance before the inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice.
Other key players in the row, including James Murdoch, Mr Michel, Mr Smith and Mr Hunt's lead civil servant, Jonathan Stephens, have already appeared before the hearing.
None of the evidence heard by those witnesses has proved politically fatal to the Culture Secretary, but nor has their testimony helped, as questions continue to swirl.
Catherine MacLeod, who was special adviser to Labour's chancellor Alistair Darling, said she found it hard to believe Mr Smith could have been operating in isolation.
She told Sky News: "You don't do any freelancing, or at least I did no freelancing. You're there completely under the patronage of your Secretary of State, in my case the Chancellor Alistair Darling.
"You're not there as an independent voice or an independent witness. And it was important for the Secretary of State that he was able to trust you entirely."
Last week, the inquiry published a memo he sent to Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2010, in which Mr Hunt appeared to be making the case for News Corp's bid to go ahead.
Mr Cameron has given the Culture Secretary his backing but warned that if anything arises from the inquiry that suggests the ministerial code might have been breached, he will call in his independent ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan or take immediate action himself.