Embattled British Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt came under renewed pressure on Friday when former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks disclosed an e-mail appearing to show he had sought the company’s advice over how Downing Street should respond to the mounting telephone-hacking scandal.
The e-mail, which also suggests Hunt sought to avoid a public inquiry into telephone hacking, emerged on another day of extraordinary disclosures about the intimacy between News Corp chief executive Rupert Murdoch’s company and government ministers.
The e-mail from News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel in June last year told Brooks that Hunt was poised to make an “extremely helpful” statement about the company’s proposed acquisition of BSkyB, saying the takeover would be approved regardless of phone-hacking allegations.
Michel also warned her, days before the Guardian revealed that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been targeted by the News of the World, that “JH [Jeremy Hunt] is now starting to looking into phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly” and that he “has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning.”
During five hours of testimony, Brooks revealed she dined with British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne on Dec. 13, 2010, when she discussed the British Office of Communication’s initial objections to News Corp’s ￡8 billion (US$12.86 billion) bid. The objections had been sent in a confidential “issues letter” by the regulator to her company three days before. Following a short discussion, the then News International boss reported to News Corp executive James Murdoch the next day that Osborne had expressed “total bafflement.”
In a steely and at times tetchy performance, Brooks said her lobbying of the chancellor had been “entirely appropriate” because she was “reflecting the opposite view to the view he had heard by that stage from pretty much every member of the anti-Sky bid alliance.”
However, Robert Jay, counsel to the inquiry, said that the e-mail demonstrated that it was “obvious that he was supportive of your bid, wasn’t he,” a suggestion Brooks rejected.
The disclosures about her conversations with the finance minister will increase the likelihood that he is called to appear before the inquiry. He is the only one of eight ministers who have submitted statements to Leveson not to have been asked to appear.
Though less damaging than some in Downing Street had feared, Brooks’ testimony also proved embarrassing for British Prime Minister David Cameron. She revealed the prime minister signed texts “DC” or sometimes “LOL” — until she explained that the phrase meant “laugh out loud,” not “lots of love.” She said she typically texted Cameron once a week, and twice a week during the 2010 election campaign, dismissing as preposterous reports that he sometimes texted her up to 12 times per day.