U.K. Culture Secretary Faces Calls for Resignation After Murdoch Hearing Appearance

10:13 AM PST 04/24/2012 by Stuart Kemp
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Jeremy Hunt, who was involved in deciding on News Corp.'s failed attempt to buy full control of pay TV firm BSkyB, is described as a “cheerleader” and informant for News Corp.

LONDON -- News Corp. deputy COO James Murdoch’s afternoon session at a panel probing media ethics and standards in the U.K. on Tuesday laid bare his company’s “toxic relationship” with British media regulators and an intimate and far from cold relationship with senior British politicians involved in the conglomerate’s attempt to gain full control of satellite TV firm BSkyB.

In an intense and often forensic examination of Murdoch’s dealings with News Corp.’s ultimately unsuccessful $12 billion bid to secure BSkyB outright, Murdoch described the cash sum as having taken a “long time to save up.”

He also expressed the sentiment that there was “clear bias” against the ill-fated bid by News Corp. and that dealings with media regulator Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading were “frustrating” and at several points seemed unlikely to ever end.

Led by Judge Brian Leveson and the panel’s chief inquisitor Robert Jay, the session set the British media and Twitter alight with details of e-mail exchanges and text messages -- supplied to the inquiry News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch -- between his son James Murdoch and U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as the battle for BSkyB control raged.

Hunt found himself at the center of a political storm after James Murdoch was shown some of the e-mails written by his chief lobbyist, Frederic Michel, which appeared to show that News Corp. was in close communication with Hunt when the coalition government’s business secretary, Vince Cable, was deciding on the bid to take full control of the pay TV giant.

Hunt ended up being involved in deciding on the proposed deal when another minister lost that responsibility after the revelation that he had declared "war" on News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch.

Questioning James Murdoch on Tuesday, Jay described Hunt as a "cheerleader" for the conglomerate.

The News Corp. executive replied that such a characterization was "unfair."

Some public figures called for Hunt’s resignation Tuesday afternoon. Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, was among them.

All bets are off now -- with Britain’s biggest bookie Ladbrokes not taking any more wagers on Hunt’s likelihood of resignation.

A BBC journalist, however, tweeted that Hunt has no intention of resigning as he is expected to tell his own story to Leveson and to argue that all communications and interactions were appropriate.

The e-mails reveal Hunt's special adviser contacted Michel shortly after the proposed takeover was announced to tell News Corp. that there "shouldn't be media plurality issue [with News Corp.'s bid for Sky] and [he] believed the U.K. government would be supportive throughout the process."

Hunt then phoned Michel directly to say he’d told the Financial Times, ahead of publication of an article, that “he didn't see any problems" with the News Corp. bid for Sky.

Jay suggested to Murdoch that it was "clear that you were receiving information along the lines that the U.K. government as a whole would be supportive of News Corp."

Murdoch said Hunt had said as much publicly and that it was "not necessarily inappropriate [that] the DCMS part of the government [was] saying, 'We don't see any issues here ... it is going to be fine.' "

Murdoch rejected suggestions throughout the afternoon session that there was any horse-trading for more positive coverage between News International -- News Corp.’s U.K. publishing division at the center of the phone-hacking scandal -- and serving politicians. That was not a business approach he endorses, he emphasized.

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