U.K. Culture Secretary Defends Interactions With News Corp. During BSkyB Bid Review
LONDON - U.K. culture secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday defended his interactions with representatives of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. during the regulatory review process of the conglomerate's plan to acquire full control of pay TV firm BSkyB.
He spoke at the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and the relationship of media and politics. Previous testimony there by other people had led to calls for his resignation amid criticism of what was seen as Hunt's pro-News Corp. stance.
Hunt took over responsibility for the review of the BSkyB bid, which was scrapped amid the phone hacking scandal, after business secretary Vince Cable had told under-cover reporters that he had declared war on Murdoch - a comment seen as causing him to be biased in the review.
Hunt on Thursday said that was "sympathetic" to News Corp.'s bid, saying that he felt it would "not lead to a change in plurality," because News Corp. was widely seen as controlling BSkyB via its 39 percent stake, even though it was a minority holding.
Was he supportive of the bid? Hunt said he would be hesitant to describe his approach that way.
But he said he felt obligated to discuss the deal with News Corp. executives, including James Murdoch who back then was also BSkyB chairman, because his portfolio includes the media industry. Thousands of jobs depended on the big deal, which could have been beneficial amid the industry's digital challenges, Hunt suggested.
"Officials advised me not to get involved in the bid" though while Cable ran the review, he emphasized. That is why he at one point thought it would be wrong to meet James Murdoch, because it might create an unhelpful "parallel process." But Hunt said he thought it would be "entirely appropriate" to speak to the son of Rupert Murdoch on the phone, which he did. The argument led to some further questioning.
Hunt was also grilled on why News Corp. sent him a document to his private email address, which he said it the only email account he uses. Official government email is otherwise handled by his office, he said.
Hunt was also confronted with a congratulatory text message he sent News Corp. after a key European deal approval that left only Ofcom to give its green light.
That message was sent just before he was handed oversight of the deal.
Hunt said he wouldn't have sent that text message had he known that only about an hour later he would be put in charge of the deal review.
Asked if he wasn't a bad choice given he seemed to have the opposite bias of Cable, Hunt said that in a review process, politicians need "to put [their personal] views aside."
Asked about an article on his Web site that says Hunt appreciated Rupert Murdoch's contributions to the U.K. TV industry, Hunt said his site simply collects a range of articles about him. "It's not how I would describe myself," he added.
Asked to compare his views on the media industry with James Murdoch's, Hunt said he "disagreed with the general thrust of his views on the BBC." Murdoch considers it state-sponsored journalism, while Hunt said he feels it "operates very effectively at arm's length."
He also said he does not share Murdoch's view that the BBC license fee is fully bad and wrong.