LONDON — A lobbyist for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. testified Thursday that he thought a U.K. government minister knew that one of his aides was providing Murdoch’s company with information on its bid to take over the British Sky Broadcasting satellite network.
Lobbyist Fred Michel told the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics that he knew he was not supposed to have direct discussions with Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, who was to decide whether the controversial bid for the lucrative broadcaster could proceed.
The bid was abandoned last year as News Corp. was engulfed in a phone hacking scandal at News of the World, its top-selling Sunday tabloid, which was shut down as a result in July. The same scandal prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to appoint Justice Brian Leveson to lead an inquiry into media wrongdoing.
Journalists at the now-defunct tabloid routinely hacked phones to get stories, bypassing weak security to illegally eavesdrop on private conversations of politicians, celebrities, sports stars and other public figures. The scandal has rocked Britain’s establishment, leading to the arrest of dozens of people and casting a harsh light on relations among Britain’s press, politicians and the police.
Hunt’s contacts with Michel are an issue because the minister was supposed to be acting in a “quasi-judicial” role, aloof from contacts with interested parties. Yet a cache of emails disclosed by News Corp. has raised questions about whether Hunt strayed from that impartial role.
Michel made 191 telephone calls and sent 158 emails and 799 texts to Hunt’s office between June 2010, when News Corp. — the biggest shareholder in BSkyB — announced its bid to buy out other shareholders, and July 2011, when the bid was abandoned.
More than 90 percent of those contacts were with Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith, Michel said.
Although Michel’s emails to News Corp. colleagues — including Murdoch’s son James, a top executive in his father’s company — frequently attributed information to “JH,” Michel said that was shorthand for Hunt’s office, not for the minister personally.
Michel also admitted that some of the more provocative material in his emails was his own interpretation or, in at least one case, a “very bad joke.”
Asked if he thought Smith accurately reflected Hunt’s view, Michel said: “I would have to assume that special advisers, and there are not many around the secretary of state — there were two in that case — always represent the view of their boss.”
“There (were) two or three events where I probably had the impression that some of the feedback I was being given had been discussed with the secretary of state before it was given to me,” Michel added.
Michel said News Corp. had two formal meetings with Hunt about the bid, and the lobbyist also exchanged some text messages with Hunt.
“I don’t think anything inappropriate ever took place,” Michel said.
“I was never of the opinion that it was inappropriate to at least try to put the arguments to or make representations to these officers,” Michel said at another point.
Under questioning by Robert Jay, the senior lawyer for the inquiry, Michel said his emails did not always accurately reflect his discussions with Smith.
Jay cited one message that Michel sent to Hunt in September 2010 asking about reports that another minister who was then in charge of the bid intended to delay a decision. “Don’t know anything,” Hunt said in a text message.
Michel then reported to his colleagues: “Jeremy Hunt is not aware and thinks it is not credible at all.”
In an email to News Corp. colleagues on Jan. 24, 2011, Michel excitedly relayed details of a statement Hunt would make the next day: “Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal…(at)!)”
On Thursday, Michel said that was a “very bad joke.”
“I have since learned that it is not unusual to get pre-notification for a statement in Parliament to be given to some of the parties to the transaction,” Michel said.