The Culture Secretary is in a tight political spot. He showed overt political support for Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire, and especially its attempt to consolidate its hold in the highly successful British satellite broadcasting business BSkyB. Today was supposed to be his moment of truth, in front of the Leveson inquiry. There is much speculation that he will be forced to resign. That may be so, but based on today’s evidence I don’t think he’s the main culprit in a shabby episode.
The story so far. Back in 2010 Murdoch launched his bid on BSkyB, which his empire controlled but did not fully own. Because of its wider implications this was referred to the government, which was required to act in a quasi-judicial capacity – that it acts with the same impartiality and fairness of process as a court of law. The minister given responsibility for this was the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable. But Dr Cable (as he likes to be known) made some rather rash comments about the Murdoch empire to undercover reporters working for the Daily Telegraph (which ironically opposed the bid). As soon as these became public, Murdoch objected that he did not have the necessary degree of impartiality for a quasi-judicial role. Within hours the job was given to Mr Hunt instead.
But Mr Hunt, it now turns out, was the subject of intense lobbying by the Murdochs (mostly via their respective minions), and had been lobbying the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in their support. The awkward issue is that if Dr Cable was unfit for the job because he was biased one way, then Mr Hunt was equally unfit because he was unbiased the other way. As the closeness of the relationship between Mr Hunt and the Murdoch empire became clear, there were calls on him to resign. These were strong enough for his special adviser, Adam Smith, to fall on his sword.
The logic of this is that Mr Hunt should have refused the job. But the nature of his relationship with the Murdochs, and his views of the bid, were certainly known to Mr Cameron. Surely the bigger problem was the Mr Cameron appointed him to do the job in the first place. The communications between Mr Hunt and Downing Street (actually with George Osborne rather than the PM directly) seem to show this.
Mr Hunt’s defence is that once he got the job, he created a robust decision-making process that transcended his prior inclinations – and that the decisions he did make showed no bias (before the bid was overwhelmed by the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the Murdoch empire). The trouble is that exactly the same defence is available to Dr Cable, who was much more scrupulous about showing distance. Indeed I suspect that Dr Cable would have been driven to approve the bid since the main objections to bid did not form a substantial barrier legally. To Dr Cable passing this particular baton over was a silver lining to the very dark cloud that this embarrassing affair comprised.
It was Mr Cameron that acted inappropriately. If he accepts Mr Hunt’s defence, he should not have stripped Dr Cable of the job, and made the same defence of him. If he was worried about open bias, he should have found somebody other than Mr Hunt to replace him – and that is what he should have done.
That won’t help Mr Hunt. Just as Adam Smith’s resignation was meant to protect his master, Mr Hunt may need to take the rap for his boss. The whole Murdoch episode is toxic to Mr Cameron. He badly needs to make it go away.