James Murdoch, one-time presumptive heir to the Murdoch media empire News Corp., may have been the one under the spotlight in today's testimony at the Leveson inquiry. But it is Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt who will now be feeling the heat.
Mr. Murdoch gave several hours of testimony today in the ongoing inquiry into the now-defunct News of the World's (NotW) phone hacking. Murdoch continued to deny any knowledge of the hacking at NotW, saying he was removed from that portion of the paper's workings, reports Reuters. "I wasn't in the business of deciding what to put in the newspapers," Murdoch said.
But the person most hurt by today's testimony was Mr. Hunt, the secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport in David Cameron's Conservative government. Investigators revealed dozens of pages of emails that called into question his impartiality regarding News Corp. Hunt was tasked with determining whether News Corp's bid to acquire all of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, in which News Corp held a minority share, would give too much power to the Murdoch media empire, which already included several newspapers. If it would not, Hunt could greenlight the sale.
But at the same time that Hunt was meant to be deciding on the legality of the acquisition, he was in regular contact with News Corp employees, including public relations chief Frederic Michel, about the status of the bid. Leveson lead counsel Robert Jay questioned Murdoch over the emails that indicated a pattern of contact between Hunt's office and News Corp staff about the bid. For example, in a Jan. 25 email, Mr. Michel e-mailed Murdoch to tell him that "JH [Jeremy Hunt] believes we are in a good place tonight." Hunt also notified Michel in May that he would call Murdoch directly by mobile phone to discuss the bid.
Mr. Jay also suggested that News Corp benefited from a "quid pro quo" with the Conservative and Scottish National Party governments in England and Scotland respectively. He cited an Feb. 11 email from Michel to Murdoch saying that an adviser to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond had agreed to contact Hunt about the BSkyB bid "whenever we need him to." In a later email, Michel wrote Murdoch that "Alex [Salmond] was keen to see if he could help smooth the way for the process" after the editor of News' Scottish paper, the Sun, told Salmond that it would be backing him in the next election.
Hunt had already been under fire for material on his website that said that he was, "like all good Conservatives, … a cheer leader for Rupert Murdoch's contribution" to the media industry, reports the Daily Telegraph.
Today's revelations have heightened speculation that Hunt will resign, though the Guardian reports that he has the backing of the prime minister. But English bookmakers, famous for putting odds on almost any event, have stopped taking bets on Hunt being the next member of Mr. Cameron's cabinet to resign.
Hunt replaced former Culture Secretary Vince Cable, who was ousted while deciding whether to approve the News BSkyB acquisition, though for the opposite alleged bias. Mr. Cable stepped down after it came to light that he told undercover Telegraph reporters that he had "declared war on Mr. Murdoch."
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