British Deputy Prime Minister: Jeremy Hunt's Account of BSkyB Bid Review Was 'Convincing'

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LONDON - British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said here Wednesday that culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has given a "full, good and convincing" account of his handling of News Corp.'s bid for full control of BSkyB, which has been hotly debated here.

He spoke at the Leveson Inquiry into the media's relationships with politicians, the police and the public.

Amid suggestions that Hunt was too close to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in reviewing the bid, the secretary is later on Wednesday facing a vote in the House of Commons of the British parliament about whether there should be an independent probe into his handling of the deal review.

Despite Clegg's comments Wednesday, his Liberal Democrats seem to be on a coalition course later in the day with their coalition partner, prime minister David Cameron's Conservative Party. Clegg has told his party's members of parliament to abstain in the vote, which has been instigated by the opposition Labour Party, the Guardian reported.

Asked about Hunt's dealing with the BSkyB bid, Clegg told the Leveson Inquiry: "I think on the specific point about how he handled the bid to make sure he was insulated from accusations of bias, I think he's given a full, good and convincing account to this inquiry."

Hunt had acknowledged in front of the Leveson Inquiry that he had favored a deal, but argued he had put personal views aside when he took over the regulatory review. The bid was later dropped amid the phone hacking scandal. 

When the review of the deal was handed from one secretary to Hunt, he said he was "operating on the assumption that [Hunt] would be favorably disposed towards the bid," but accepted assurances that they wouldn't color any decision. "I think I was told that there were some comments on the public record from Jeremy Hunt, I did not ask to see those comments myself and I was assured they were not sufficiently serious…that precluded the transfer to Jeremy Hunt."

Asked about his views on media ownership rules, Clegg took a more restrained position than Labour leader Ed Milliband who had on Tuesday suggested News Corp. should maybe be forced to sell a U.K. newspaper. Media plurality is "not a mathematical formula," Clegg said, but added that media ownership and plurality rules are too vague and "eccentrically designed" for a fast-moving sector like media.

Clegg later in the day also supported a colleague's claim that he was told that his party would face more critical coverage from Murdoch papers if it opposed the BSkyB bid. He said though that his party has "never been in anybody's pocket."

Asked about former News of the World editor Andy Coulson's appointment as Cameron's communications advisor, Clegg said that "we were highly critical" of it.
But Cameron explained he felt confident about the decision and everyone deserves a second chance.

When did he realize an in-depth phone hacking investigation was needed? "The Milly Dowler thing transformed everything," Clegg said in reference to a murdered school girl, whose voicemail News of the World reporters accessed while she was reported missing. The public understandably was upset amid the "almost amoral behavior towards helpless, innocent people," Clegg said.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai

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