Tony Blair to face Leveson Inquiry on Monday before embattled Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is grilled days later
Jeremy hunt will give evidence on Thursday
‘I don’t regret it’: Cameron defends decision to hand BSkyB decision to Hunt
Harriet Harman says the evidence of Hunt’s wrongdoing was ‘absolutely massive’
‘If we block it our media sector will suffer for years,’ Mr Hunt told Cameron
The document also adds James Murdoch was ‘furious’ with Vince Cable over his handling of the bid
A source close to Mr Hunt said the memo did not mean he couldn’t make an independent decision
By Matt Blake
PUBLISHED: 10:51, 25 May 2012 | UPDATED: 14:34, 25 May 2012
Tony Blair will face the Leveson Inquiry on Monday, three days before embattled Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt takes the stand, it was announced today.
Calls have been growing for the former Prime Minister to answer allegations that News International had ‘unique access to Downing Street’ during Labour’s 13 years in power.
MP Tom Watson told the the probe into press ethics this week that Mr Murdoch even tried to halt his anti-phone hacking campaign by asking Tony Blair to ‘call him off’.
Close? Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, right, and Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation Chairman and CEO, left, speak during a news conference held in conjunction with the Atlantic Council’s 2008 annual awards dinner in Washington
And last week Peter Mandelson admitted that Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch had become ‘closer than was wise’. He denied, however, there was a ‘Faustian pact’.
Labour’s former chief spin doctor Alistair Campbell also sought to douse claims there was a cosy relationship between News Corp and the party, telling the inquiry: ‘I don’t think on policy anything was ever traded with Rupert Murdoch or with any other media owner.’
The inquiry will seek to uncover the degree of contact between News International and the Labour Party in the run up to the 1997 general election in which Mr Blair took power for the first time after The Sun famously switched its allegiance from the Tory Party.
In one of the most crucial – and potentially explosive – weeks of the inquiry so far, Mr Hunt will on Thursday respond to damaging allegations surrounding his own links to News Corp during its controversial takeover bid of BSkyB last year.
He will also be challenged over whether his cheerleading for the £8-billion bid was entirely impartial since he was bestowed quasi-judicial powers by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Today, Mr Cameron defended his decision to hand responsibility to Mr Hunt, who is facing fresh calls from Labour to resign over his handling of the bid.
‘I don’t regret giving the job to Jeremy Hunt, it was the right thing to do in the circumstances, which were not of my making,’ Mr Cameron told ITV’s This Morning. ‘The crucial point, the really crucial point, is did Jeremy Hunt carry out his role properly with respect to BSkyB and I believe that he did.’
No date has been set for the Prime Minister’s appearance at the inquiry, but he said he was ‘looking forward to giving evidence’, as was Mr Hunt, so ‘all of this will be out in the open’.
It emerged yesterday that Jeremy Hunt privately urged David Cameron to back Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB takeover bid just weeks before the Prime Minister put him in charge of ruling on the issue, it emerged last night.
In a bombshell email, the Culture Secretary lavished praise on the bid.
Mr Hunt said it would allow Mr Murdoch’s son James to create ‘the world’s first multi-platform media operator’ and insisted that if it was blocked the ‘media sector will suffer for years’.
The Premier will now face tough questions over why he gave Mr Hunt responsibility for the bid, despite knowing that he had been privately cheerleading for the Murdochs.
Critics will also question the wisdom of Mr Cameron joining Mr Murdoch and News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks for a cosy Christmas lunch just a month later where the bid was discussed.
Harriet Harman led the charge against Mr Hunt today telling BBC Breakfast the evidence of his wrongdoing was ‘absolutely massive’, arguing that instead of judging the Murdochs’ bid, he was backing it.
‘There are two bits of evidence, actual straightforward evidence, that Jeremy Hunt was not impartial, he was meddling before he even took over the bid and was on the side of the Murdochs,’ she said.
‘The first was that he had to be warned off by the civil servants not to have any more meetings with Rupert Murdoch but he kept up the contact through his special adviser, and secondly he wrote a memo to the Prime Minister.’
The Culture Secretary’s message, revealed in evidence to the Leveson inquiry into media standards yesterday, told Mr Cameron it would be ‘totally wrong to cave in’ to critics of the bid, including BBC director-general Mark Thompson, Channel 4 and the Guardian newspaper.
Mr Hunt said James Murdoch was ‘pretty furious’ that Business Secretary Vince Cable had referred the bid to media regulator Ofcom.
He asked for a meeting with Mr Cameron, Mr Cable and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to discuss the handling of the deal.
The disclosure appears directly to contradict Mr Hunt’s insistence to MPs last month that he had made ‘absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business’.
It piles pressure on both Mr Hunt and Mr Cameron in the row over the Government’s handling of the BSkyB bid, which other media organisations argued would hand the Murdoch empire an unassailable dominance in Britain.
Downing Street admitted that the then Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell was not made aware of the private message when he was asked to determine weeks later whether Mr Hunt could act as an impartial judge of the deal, given his previous statements of admiration for Mr Murdoch.
Mr Cameron handed Mr Hunt responsibility for determining the bid after Mr Cable, who had previously been in charge of the issue, was caught on tape boasting that he had ‘declared war’ on News Corporation.
The Culture Secretary’s representations had already been the subject of legal warnings from his own department, according to the counsel to the Leveson inquiry, Robert Jay.
He said the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s legal director had advised that although it was not illegal for him to attempt to intervene, to do so would be ‘unwise’.
A picture of the cosy relationship between the Murdoch empire and the department emerged at the inquiry yesterday, with evidence that News Corp’s chief lobbyist Frederic Michel exchanged more than 1,000 phone calls, emails and texts with the Culture Secretary’s team during News Corp’s BSkyB takeover bid
Most were to and from Mr Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith, who has already had to quit, admitting his contacts with News Corp went beyond what had been authorised by the Culture Secretary.
Also giving evidence in one of the most crucial weeks of the inquiry will be Business Secretary Vince Cable, who was stripped of the role of deciding whether the bid could proceed last December after he was secretly recorded saying he had ‘declared war’ on Mr Murdoch.
After that, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May will appear on Tuesday and Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, after Mr Cable, on Wednesday.