In typically British Establishment manner Adam Smith, chief of staff to Jeremy Hunt, fell on his sword but not before uttering the the ritual words required to exculpate his master: “the content and extent of my contact (with News International) was done without authorisation from the Secretary of State”. Pull the other one. For over 6 months from 24 December 2010 when Hunt took over formal responsibility for dealing with the BSkyB bid until 11 July 2011 when the bid collapsed, the emails between Smith and Frederic Michel (the anglicised Frenchman acting as chief lobbyist for Murdoch) were ceaseless.
It is inconceivable that the passing of such intimate details of every twist and turn of the saga faithfully transmitted to the Murdoch camp could have been done without Hunt’s knowledge, and almost certainly in most cases at his express instigation. Michel explicitly confirmed as much to the Leveson inquiry: “It was my understanding that when they told me something, it was always on behalf of the Minister and having conferred with him”.
Hunt is toast. He flagrantly and repeatedly breached the solemn undertaking he had given the Commons that in his formal semi-judicial role regarding the bid he had no contact with the key players, notably the Murdochs. his claim that he had no knowledge of, or involvement in, the back-channel he set up is untenable and his demise is only a matter of time.
If, or rather when, Hunt goes, the trail leads directly to Cameron. It was Cameron who, after Cable’s ‘war against Murdoch’ was terminated by the Telegraph sting, put the more junior Hunt in charge, no doubt with some cue as to how he expected/wanted the BSkyB bid to go. The question is whether this was part of a wider deal.
In 2009 the Murdochs had three main objectives – they wanted to seal the £8bn deal for BSkyB above all, but they also wanted the hated Ofcom to be cut down to size and their main broadcasting rival, the BBC, squeezed in terms of funding and coverage. That required removing the Labour government. On 10 September James Murdoch told Cameron at a drinking club in Mayfair that the Sun would support the Tories for the election in 2010, and the three conditions of the Murdoch empire will have been set out as the other side of the deal.
By October 2010 they had secured two of their goals from the new government: Ofcom’s budget was reduced by 28% and its role cut back, and the BBC’s budget was cut by 16% and its commercial activity clipped back. All the signs are that they had lined up Cameron to provide the third also, and would have got it had not the Guardian at the very last minute splashed that Millie Dowler’s phone had been hacked.