The Office of Fair Trading has handed a dossier of material about the £8bn BSkyB takeover to the Leveson Inquiry, following revelations that Jeremy Hunt's office had leaked sensitive information to News Corp throughout the deal.
The dossier is understood to include emails and correspondence with Mr Hunt's office and News Corp. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is one of several regulators examining the handling of the buy-up.
It also emerged yesterday that:
- The Culture Secretary Mr Hunt spent five days in the US holding meetings with News Corp at the same time that Rupert and James Murdoch were deciding whether to bid for BSkyB.
- The Labour MP Chris Bryant suggested in Parliament that written evidence from Mr Murdoch, due to be published today, would reveal additional meetings between the company and David Cameron which have not been disclosed by the Prime Minister.
- Mr Hunt personally exchanged text messages with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel while Mr Hunt was adjudicating on the bid. One said: “Hopefully when consultation over we can have a coffee like the old days!”
- The Culture Secretary’s special advisor, Adam Smith, \[c.obrien\]Mr Smith communicated with Mr Michel via a private email account which could not be read by civil servants responsible for ensuring the probity of communications. The disclosure appears to contradict Mr Hunt's statement to Parliament that Mr Smith was not operating a “back channel” to the company.
The involvement of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) — which is understood to be concerned that emails to News Corp from Mr Smith contained financially sensitive information — will be a major concern for the Government. It is understood to be looking at emails suggesting that Mr Michel was given advance details in January last year of an announcement that the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, had significant concerns and wanted a further investigation of the bid by the Competition Commission.
On the eve of the announcement planned for January 25, Mr Michel emailed News Corp's heir presumptive, James Murdoch, saying: “Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal .. !)”.
Downing Street yesterday attempted to close down demands for an official investigation on whether Mr Hunt had broken the ministerial code by insisting it did not want to prejudice Mr Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry. They said Mr Hunt would set out his account of events at the inquiry and it would be up to Lord Justice Leveson to determine if he had acted appropriately.
But Labour said it was “entirely wrong” to delegate responsibility for upholding ministerial standards to Leveson and demanded an urgent inquiry.
Mr Smith attempted to shield Mr Hunt by resigning, and insisting that the “content and extent” of his contact with News Corp had not been authorised.
In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on Tuesday, James Murdoch said he assumed the email reference to “absolutely illegal” was a joke.
But the revelation that Ofcom felt the proposed takeover could harm media plurality was information that could have an effect on the share prices of BSkyB and News Corp — and had seemingly been passed to the Murdoch empire while markets were still open.