Jeremy Hunt was once a rising star within British parliament – as recently as March, he was described as “a future leader of the Conservative Party.” Yet a memo sent by Hunt, which was revealed in testimony at a media ethics inquiry yesterday, has jeopardized that future and politically damaged the Conservative Party’s current leader: Prime Minister David Cameron. Hunt, who serves as culture secretary in Cameron’s cabinet, will appear before the inquiry next Thursday, following testimony from Tony Blair on Monday. There, he will be called upon to explain why he accepted a role as impartial arbiter of Rupert Murdoch‘s bid to take over the satellite company BSkyB — the country’s largest broadcaster — weeks after sending a memo to Cameron pushing heavily for approval of the takeover. Cameron, for his part, is under pressure to explain why he offered Hunt the role after receiving the memo, and after stripping business secretary Vince Cable of responsibility for the bid on the grounds that Cable was inappropriately biased against the deal.
Cameron, who has been embarrassed by repeated revelations of his cozy relationship with the Murdoch media empire, took to the airwaves on Friday morning, seeking to contain the political fallout from the memo, which suggests that Cameron replaced Cable with someone equally biased — this time, in the Murdochs’ favor. In a television interview on ITV, Cameron said, “the key thing was it wasn’t what [Hunt] had said in the past, it was how he was going to do the job.” He added that Hunt had “asked for independent advice at every stage” and took that advice “in a thoroughly proper way.”
Hunt’s troubles kicked off when the media ethics inquiry conducted by Judge Brian Leveson on April 24 published a 163-page dossier of emails between a Europe-based lobbyist for the Murdoch’s media company News Corporation, Frédéric Michel, and Hunt’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport which suggested that Hunt’s office was advising the Murdochs on the takeover.
The backlash was swift, with Labour politicians calling for Hunt’s resignation. Hunt denied behaving inappropriately, and his special advisor Adam Smith shouldered the blame, saying he’d liaised with Michel without Hunt’s authorization, and promptly resigned.
But this week’s round of testimony at Leveson banished any notion that Hunt was in the clear. Yesterday, while Frederic Michel himself sat on the witness stand, the lawyer for the inquiry revealed that Michel had exchanged 191 telephone calls, 158 emails and 799 text messages with Hunt’s department before News Corp abandoned the bid in light of the phone hacking scandal.
Michel told the inquiry that while he primarily conversed with Smith, not Hunt, about the bid, it was his impression that Smith’s correspondence reflected Hunt’s views. ”I think there’s two or three events when I probably had the sort of impression that some of the feedback I was being given had been discussed with [Hunt] before it was given to me,” Michel said.
However the bombshell of the day — and the piece of evidence that may force Hunt from office — came during Smith’s testimony, when he revealed that Hunt had sent a memo to David Cameron strongly supporting News Corp’s BSkyB bid just weeks before assuming his “quasi-judicial” role in deciding on the merger. In the memo, sent on November 19, Hunt inveighs against business secretary Vince Cable’s referral of the case to media regulator Ofcom, writing that Ofcom’s involvement would make James Murdoch “furious” and put the Government “in the wrong place in terms of media policy.” He praised Murdoch’s plan to “create the world’s first multiplatform media operator available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad,” a move — Hunt notes enthusiastically — that would echo Rupert Murdoch’s union-crushing transformation of the print industry with his Times takeover in the 1980s. He attacked those opposing the deal, including BBC director Mark Thompson, in a particularly partisan fashion, writing that “it would be totally wrong to cave into the Mark Thompson/Channel4/Guardian line.”
The Hunt memo flies in the face of Hunt’s claims before Members of Parliament last month that he had made “absolutely no interventions” seeking to influence the outcome of the bid while it was under Cable’s watch. It also now appears likely that Hunt tried to salvage his own career by faulting Smith for writing emails that exaggerated his enthusiasm for the bid and forcing Smith’s resignation. In fact, Smith may have underplayed his boss’ support.
Hunt’s downfall — which at this point seems all but inevitable — would mark yet another member of David Cameron’s inner circle whose career has been claimed by apparently inappropriate dealings with the Murdochs. (Andy Coulson, Cameron’s communications director and former editor of Murdoch tabloid News of the World, was forced to resign in January 2011 as a result of the phone hacking scandal.)
This must come as a heavy blow to Hunt, who followed a well-worn (and generally reliable) path to power. After attending the elite, ancient private boarding school Charterhouse, Hunt studied philosophy, politics and economics — the degree favored by former (and aspiring) prime ministers — at Magdalen College, Oxford. While at university, he became president of the Oxford Conservative Association, whose past members include Hunt’s fellow current cabinet ministers William Hague and Dominic Grieve (also both Magdalen alumni). After college, Hunt taught English in Japan and dabbled in PR before launching an educational publishing company called Hotcourses.
Once Hunt went into politics, his ascent was swift. He was first elected in 2005 as the Conservative MP for South West Surrey. Just seven months later, he snagged a position as the shadow disabilities minister when David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party. In a reshuffle two years later, Cameron promoted him to shadow culture secretary. When the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government in 2010, Hunt joined the cabinet as head of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Yet Hunt, who developed a reputation for being “ambitious” among other politicians, has stumbled more than once on his way up. On May 21, the parliamentary standards commission announced that Hunt was under investigation for failing to declare donations from media companies in 2012 when the Conservatives were in opposition. (Hunt has reported that he has since amended his records.) While the investigation is not related to the Murdoch controversy, it still spells out a miserable month for the culture secretary. Certainly members of the opposition party have been keen to pounce. Labour MP Tom Watson, writing in the Guardian, said of Hunt, “He saw himself as a future leader of the Conservative party. But after this he’s toast. He’ll be lucky to get elected to the culture, media and sport select committee when this is over, let alone 10 Downing Street.”