Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
Jeremy Hunt (Secretary of State, Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport; South West Surrey, Conservative)
I will happily do that, Mr Speaker, but I do think that Opposition Members need to show a degree of humility when they deal with these issues—[Interruption]—because if we are going to solve this problem, it is necessary for the whole House to work together and not to jump on bandwagons.
Let me now deal with the specific points made by the right hon. and learned Lady. She said that I was backing the bid—that I had made up my mind. That is not true. Let me say this. First, when I was appointed to be responsible for the bid, my views about the bid, some of which had been made public, were explicitly reported to the Cabinet Secretary, who decided that it was appropriate for me to take responsibility for it in a quasi-judicial role, but—this is the crucial point: it is very important—the right hon. and learned Lady must understand that because I had expressed some sympathy for the bid when I was not responsible for it, I changed the process so that at every stage before I made a decision, I obtained the advice of independent regulators, which I carefully considered and which I followed. I put it to the right hon. and learned Lady that if I had been backing the bid, I would not have sought the advice of independent regulators who might well have opposed it.
I made four decisions in this process, and each of those decisions was contrary to what News Corporation wanted. [Interruption.] If Opposition Members are making the very serious allegation that I was supporting this bid and not acting quasi-judicially, they must at least listen to the evidence of what happened.
The first decision I made was that I was minded to refer the bid to the Competition Commission, which is precisely what James Murdoch did not want me to do. I said that I was minded to do it. I then had an obligation to consider undertakings in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission, and I made my second decision, which was that I would not accept those undertakings until I had received and considered the advice of Ofcom and the OFT on whether they dealt with the plurality concerns. That was something about which James Murdoch was extremely angry. [Interruption.] I had a meeting which was minuted.
The third decision that I made was to extend the period of consultation—again, at any stage I could have accepted those undertakings—and to insist again that Ofcom and the OFT must have full sight of the undertakings, that I would see their advice, and in practice I followed their advice after careful consideration.
My final decision, at the very end of the process, was made at the time of the Milly Dowler revelations. At that stage, I wrote to Ofcom and asked it whether those allegations should have any impact on my decision with respect to accepting the undertakings, because I thought that there was a question mark over corporate governance procedures which might affect any decision to accept them.
Those four decisions were contrary to what News Corporation wanted. The idea that I was backing the bid is laughable.
The right hon. and learned Lady talked about the e-mails between Frederic Michel and me. In his evidence to the inquiry, Frederic Michel also said—[Interruption.] I think that Opposition Members should listen to the evidence that was presented yesterday. Frederic Michel said:
“some of my emails… may incorrectly suggest to a reader that I had contact with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, when in fact my contact was solely with Mr Hunt’s adviser”.
[Interruption.] I accept, and my adviser accepts, that those communications overstepped the mark. However, I am telling the House today that all the evidence makes it absolutely clear that none of those conversations influenced the decisions that I made.
Let me just say this. The right hon. and learned Lady’s party had 13 years in which to do something about this. During the last year of the last Labour Government, the Cabinet discussed the issue of press behaviour and decided to do nothing. In contrast, she faces a Prime Minister and Culture Secretary who set up the Leveson inquiry within two weeks of the Milly Dowler situation, who therefore have put in place a process that, while fully protecting freedom of expression—which is the foundation of our democracy—will oversee some of the most fundamental reforms of press practices in a generation, and who have shown more commitment to transparency and openness than her Government ever did.