Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
Jeremy Hunt (Secretary of State, Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport; South West Surrey, Conservative)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement following yesterday’s developments at the Leveson inquiry. Although I intend to respond fully to allegations about my conduct and that of my Department when I present my evidence to Lord Justice Leveson, I believe that it is important to update the House on actions that have been taken as a result of evidence released yesterday.
We are 273 days into a process whose first stage will last until October. This is not the time to jump on a political bandwagon—[ Interruption. ] What the public want to hear are not my views or those of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, but the views of Lord Justice Leveson when he has considered all the evidence. I do, however, think that it is right to set the record right on a number of issues, in the light of the evidence heard yesterday at the inquiry. Specifically, on the merger of News Corp with BSkyB, I would like to remind the House of the process that I followed. Throughout, I have followed due process, seeking the advice of independent regulators—something I did not have to do—and after careful consideration, acting on their advice. I have published all advice that I have received from Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading, together with correspondence between myself and News Corporation, including details of all meetings that I have held in relation to this process.
As part of this process, my officials and I have engaged with News Corporation and its representatives, as well as other interested parties—both supporters and opponents of the merger. Transcripts of conversations and texts published yesterday between my special adviser, Adam Smith, and a News Corporation representative have been alleged to indicate that there was a back channel through which News Corporation was able to influence my decisions. That is categorically not the case—[ Interruption. ]
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. The House must calm down a bit. The statement must be heard. There will be a full opportunity for questioning of the Secretary of State, as he would expect. Whether he expects it or not, that is what will happen. That is right and proper, but it is also right and proper that the statement should be heard with courtesy.
Jeremy Hunt (Secretary of State, Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport; South West Surrey, Conservative)
However, the volume and tone of those communications were clearly not appropriate in a quasi-judicial process, and today Adam Smith has resigned as my special adviser. Although he accepts that he overstepped the mark on this occasion, I want to set on record that I believe that he did so unintentionally and did not believe that he was doing anything more than giving advice on process. I believe him to be someone of integrity and decency, and it is a matter of huge regret to me that this has happened.
I only saw the transcripts of these communications yesterday. They did not influence my decisions in any way at all—not least because I insisted on hearing the advice of independent regulators at every stage of the process. I will give my full record of events when I give
evidence to Lord Justice Leveson. However, I would like to resolve this issue as soon as possible, which is why I have written to Lord Justice Leveson asking if my appearance can be brought forward. I am totally confident that when I present my evidence, the public will see that I conducted this process with scrupulous fairness throughout.
Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Everyone recognises that the £8 billion News Corp bid for BSkyB was of huge commercial importance and that it had profound implications for newspapers and for all of broadcasting, including the BBC. The Business Secretary had been stripped of his responsibility for deciding on the bid because he had already made up his mind against it, but the Culture Secretary too had made up his mind, in favour of the bid, so how could he have thought it proper to take on that decision? Of course he could take advice, but the decision as to whether he should do it, and could do it fairly, was a matter for him and him alone.
The Secretary of State took on the responsibility, and assured the House that he would be acting in a quasi-judicial role, like a judge, and that he would be transparent, impartial and fair. However, is it not the case that James Murdoch was receiving information in advance about what the Secretary of State was going to do and what he was going to say—information that was given to only one side, which had not been given to those who were opposed to the bid, and before it was given to this House.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think it acceptable that Murdoch knew not only about what he was going to do and say, but, crucially, what the regulator, Ofcom, had said to the Secretary of State on
When it comes to the transparency that the Secretary of State promised, there appears to have been a great deal of transparency for Murdoch, but precious little for opponents of the bid or for this House. If, as suggested on the right hon. Gentleman’s behalf in the media, he was negotiating with Murdoch, why did he not tell the opponents of the bid and why did he not tell the House? Will he tell us now whether he believed himself to have been negotiating? Is that what was going on?
far, and he has resigned, but will the Secretary of State confirm that under paragraph 3.3 of the ministerial code, it is the Secretary of State himself who is responsible for the conduct of his special adviser?
This was a controversial bid. The right hon. Gentleman could have refused to take it on, but he did not. He could have referred it to the Competition Commission, but he did not. His role was to be impartial, but he was not. His conduct should have been quasi-judicial, but it fell far, far short of that, and fell short of the standards required by his office. The reality is that he was not judging this bid; he was backing it, so he should resign.
Jeremy Hunt (Secretary of State, Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport; South West Surrey, Conservative)
I am hugely disappointed by the right and learned hon. Lady’s response today. She had the opportunity to rise above party politics and work towards a solution to a problem that has bedevilled British politics for many years; instead, she has chosen to jump on the political bandwagon. Let me remind her that the Labour party spent over a decade in power and did nothing other than cosy up to the press barons and their families. She speaks for a party whose Prime Minister, when in opposition, flew half-way round the world, in Rupert Murdoch’s words, to “make love” to him “like a scorpion”. [Interruption.] This is a party whose Prime Minister was godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter and whose Prime Minister’s wife organised a sleepover at Chequers. [Interruption.] I will come on to deal with all the right hon. and learned Lady’s points.
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. I appeal to the House to calm down. I politely but explicitly suggest to the Secretary of State that in addressing these matters, he seeks to address the questions put to him and to address the matters for which he is responsible, which obviously does not include the conduct of other political parties.
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.
John Whittingdale (Maldon, Conservative)
Will my right hon. Friend first confirm that, whatever his advisers may have said, the only advice that he took was from Ofcom, and that he followed it? Secondly, does he agree that usually in circumstances such as these the first thing the Opposition do is call for a judicial inquiry, and given that that is precisely what we have, is it not sensible to wait until it completes its work and not jump to conclusions?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and given that the Leader of the Opposition has previously said that he thinks it is right that the Leveson inquiry should take its course—that the most important thing is that it gets to the bottom of what happened, of what Labour did, of what the Conservatives did, and we reach a judgment about that—it is curious that he is now trying to pre-empt its conclusions.
Ben Bradshaw (Exeter, Labour)
Both the Culture Secretary and the Prime Minister have repeated again today that they always followed Ofcom advice. They did not. Ofcom thought this bid should be referred to the Competition Commission; so did the Business Secretary, so did the Labour Government. Why did the Culture Secretary change that policy?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman was disappointed yesterday, as he was looking for a smoking gun that showed that the process had not been properly pursued. The very first decision I took was to say I was minded to refer this bid. That is the proper process. If a Minister wants to refer a bid to the Competition Commission, the proper process is to tell the interested party that they are minded to do so, and it then has the opportunity to come back with undertakings, which the Minister has a duty to consider. That is the process set up by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government in the Enterprise Act 2002, and that is what I was doing.
Don Foster (Bath, Liberal Democrat)
The Prime Minister reminded us earlier today that for far too long Conservative and Labour politicians and their advisers have been cosying up to the media, and in particular to the Murdoch empire. In light of that and of the Secretary of State’s own experiences, does he agree that it is inappropriate for a politician to make decisions on media ownership when, however hard they seek to be impartial, politicians will be perceived to be under pressure to meet the wishes of the media barons? Should not these decisions be made openly and independently by the appropriate regulator?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He knows that I have said that I think this is an issue that needs to be considered, because the perception of impartiality is as important as the impartiality itself. We wait with interest to hear what Lord Justice Leveson says.
I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to be very careful about declaring someone guilty before there has been due process. He described—[Interruption.] He accepts—[Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman used the word “incriminating.” I said he overstepped the mark, and I think it is very important in situations such as this that due process is followed. The hon. Gentleman wanted an inquiry. He has got an inquiry. Let us listen to the results of that inquiry.
Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood, Conservative)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what these e-mails show is the shocking extent to which lobbyists exaggerate, embellish and invent the access and influence they actually have?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are countless examples in those e-mails of things that simply did not happen—of meetings that were alleged to have taken place not just with me, but with members of my Department, but that simply did not happen. It is very important that we hear all the evidence so that we can get to the bottom of what is truth and what is fiction.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour)
Every councillor in the land knows what “quasi-judicial” means. They know that it means that if they are on the planning committee, they cannot tip the wink to anybody on one side or the other, and that they have to be cleaner than clean, whiter than white. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have both asserted for the last two years that they had no inappropriate conversations with that woman, Rebekah Brooks, and that every single one of their meetings has been published. May I just give this one final chance to the Prime Minister to come clean on all the meetings, because I think he might find things are going to get very difficult for him later on today?
Let me say this: the Prime Minister had no inappropriate conversations, because he was not responsible for this decision.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham, Liberal Democrat)
We have heard what the Culture Secretary has to say about his own conduct, and I believe him. As for what on earth his office was up to, I hope Lord Justice Leveson gets to the bottom of that. Does the Secretary of State still think that Lord Leveson should be reporting to the Culture Secretary, or should he now report directly to the Prime Minister instead?
With respect, Lord Justice Leveson is reporting to me and the Home Secretary on the express wishes of the Prime Minister. The most important point is that what he reports is totally independent, and it is.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire, Scottish National Party)
Some 6,800 people are employed by BSkyB in Scotland. They will have been watching the events of the past 24 hours with increasing concern and alarm. What message has the Secretary of State got for them today?
We want to have a thriving media industry, and I believe that the great strength of our media industry in this country is that we have a strong BBC and strong competition to the BBC. Those employees play a good part in that, and we want to see all companies in this sector thrive.
Richard Graham (Gloucester, Conservative)
We have heard today that there are, indeed, many cases in political history of lobbyists with more of Walter Mitty than the truth to their claims. Perhaps the Secretary of State can help the House today. Fred Michel claimed he had 54 separate conversations with the Secretary of State; will my right hon. Friend confirm how many conversations he did have?
Dennis Skinner (Bolsover, Labour)
The Culture Secretary’s adviser has now lost his job. Does that not prove the theory that when posh boys are in trouble, they sack the servants? Why doesn’t the Secretary of State do the decent thing: tell dodgy Dave and Gideon, and get out and resign?
Adam Smith’s resignation is a matter of huge regret to me. I believe him to be a person of integrity and decency, but my responsibility to this House is to the integrity of this process—the objectivity and impartiality with which this process was conducted—and I believe I have presented evidence to the House that demonstrates that I behaved in a judiciously impartial way throughout.
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. Whatever strong views Members hold on this subject—as on many others—let me just remind them of the importance, as “Erskine May” has exhorted us, of moderation in the use of language in this House.
No, I did not. What I had on my website was an article from Broadcast magazine in which it wrote that, and I hope the evidence I have been able to present this morning shows that that was not the case.
Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, Labour)
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that anyone who is responsible for any sector, be it the aerospace sector, the chemicals sector or the automobile sector, has to talk to all the people involved in that industry. It is my job to talk to the BBC, to ITV, to Sky and to newspaper proprietors, because I want that industry to be successful. This bid did have some implications for media policy, so it was perfectly proper for me to be apprised of those. What was not right was for me to be involved in the decision-making process, and I was not while it was the responsibility of the Business Secretary.
I do not. Throughout the bid process, when I got responsibility for it, the contact that I had with Fred Michel was only at official meetings that were minuted with other people present. The fact is that there is a whole pile of e-mails—54 in total—in which he talks about having contact with me, but that simply did not happen.
I want Lord Leveson to report absolutely everything he thinks, without fear or favour, including his opinion on the integrity of my conduct.
Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove, Conservative)
May I thank the Culture Secretary, a man I know to be of the utmost integrity and honesty, for his statement? The previous Government knew of phone hacking and illegal media practices for years but failed to take any action. May I ask the Culture Secretary to contrast his action with their inaction?
In 13 years, there were two Information Commissioner reports, one Select Committee report and two people were sent to prison, yet the Labour party did absolutely nothing. That is why it is totally inappropriate for Labour to be suggesting that this is somehow a Government problem. It is an issue that affects the whole political process, which is why we need to be working together to sort it out.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme, Labour)
The Secretary of State will appreciate that one of the main concerns about the fallout from the phone hacking affair is how widely News International’s tentacles reached into the police and into government. BSkyB launched its bid in June 2010 and Andy Coulson resigned in January 2011, so, irrespective of when the Secretary of State took responsibility for the bid, will he tell the House whether Mr Coulson had any communications with him or with DCMS advisers, in any shape or form, about News Corp’s interest in BSkyB while Mr Coulson was still the Prime Minister’s official spokesman?
I had no communication or consultation with Mr Coulson about this bid when I was responsible for it.
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
My reason for involving the OFT and Ofcom in this process to a much greater extent than I was required to do under the Enterprise Act 2002 was precisely that I wanted to address the concerns that Members of this House and the public might have about my prejudging this issue. At every stage—I took four major decisions, each of which was not the decision that News Corp wanted—and on every ruling that I made, I carefully considered that independent advice, and after considering it, I followed it.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central, Labour)
The Culture Secretary did not answer the question put by my hon. Friend Mr Watson. Will he be very precise and tell the House now, because this is important evidence, whether he knew of the exchanges between his special adviser and Mr Michel? Did he know of the contents of those exchanges?
That information—it is an important question—was set out in a statement made by Adam Smith when he resigned.
I knew about his contact—that was authorised. He was authorised to be the point of contact between my Department and News Corporation. What I did not know was the communications themselves—the first time I saw them was yesterday. Nor did I know the volume of those communications or their tone
My hon. Friend makes the most important point in this whole process. If one looks at the evidence of the decisions that I actually made, one finds that it is clear that at every stage I actually made the decision that News Corporation did not want. That includes the final decision, which was to ask whether I should take account of the Milly Dowler revelations, which was what precipitated the collapse of the entire bid.
Those conversations—this is why I am telling the House this today—were inappropriate, but they did not affect my decision. The evidence for that is in the decisions that I actually took, which were four decisions that James Murdoch did not want.
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands, Conservative)
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what measures he put in place in this process, over and above what was necessary, to ensure that the process was fair, transparent and open?
Absolutely. The most important thing was that when James Murdoch offered undertakings in lieu of a referral to the Competition Commission, which it is his right to do so and my duty to consider, instead of accepting those undertakings, which I was legally completely entitled to do, I said that I would not do so until I had been given proper advice by Ofcom and the OFT as to whether it would be appropriate to do so. When I got that advice, I considered it carefully and I followed it. That is not required by the law, but I chose to do that because of my commitment to the integrity of the process.
Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South, Labour)
Why was the special adviser the nominated person in the Department? If this was so important, as the Secretary of State is saying, why was his special adviser the nominated person?
His role was agreed by the permanent secretary, but he was not the only person; we had contacts on all sorts of levels—[Interruption.] Let me explain
this to the House. When complex undertakings are involved in a huge merger, the process is very complex and there are, inevitably, a range of contacts. As I say, I have tried to be as transparent as possible in all those contacts. I think that, in this particular case, the contacts overstepped the mark, which is why, regrettably, Adam Smith has decided to resign. But let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that Adam Smith, in his statement, said:
Sam Gyimah (East Surrey, Conservative)
The Secretary of State is a fellow Surrey MP whom I have grown to respect as a model professional. He knew that the BSkyB deal was controversial when the issue was moved to his Department. Will he explain what measures he took to ensure that the bid process was fair, transparent and open?
I have talked at length about the role of independent regulators, but let me just make the following response to my hon. Friend: one of the points about getting that independent advice from Ofcom and the OFT was that I published what they advised me to do before I made my decision, so that when I announced my decision the whole country could see whether I had acted in accordance with independent advice, which I did at every stage. That is why this House and the country can be reassured that this extremely difficult bid was conducted with scrupulous impartiality.
Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry, DUP)
The Secretary of State referred in his statement to the “volume and tone” of the communications of his adviser not being appropriate. Does the Secretary of State accept that either he followed due process or he did not? If he followed due process, he should be here today fighting in defence of his innocence. If he is guilty, or if he feels that he did not follow due process, there should be due humility. Why is he doing neither?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, due process in this situation means that I should take my decision objectively and impartially, setting aside my own prejudices. That is exactly what I did.
I absolutely did and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that, but we are very keen in all these processes to learn the lesson that the appearance of impartiality is also very important. That is why today the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary to write to all Departments to clarify the rigorous procedures that Departments should have in place for handling all cases of a quasi-judicial nature and said that it is vital that in dealing with these cases all contacts by Ministers, officials and special advisers are carefully controlled and properly recorded so that the independence, integrity and impartiality of the process are upheld and, just as important, seen to be upheld.
Jamie Reed (Copeland, Labour)
In the past 40 minutes I have watched the Prime Minister give the Secretary of State answers to the questions that he is being asked. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that the next great scandal in British politics is lobbying?
I think that forewarned is forearmed. In this process, we have seen the role of one corporate affairs adviser, and that is why this Government are conducting a review at the moment to consider the role of lobbyists and to ensure that we have proper transparency in the entire process.
Just one of the slightly curious e-mails that Fred Michel sent suggested that he had called me just before I went to see “Swan Lake”; I actually went to see it five days later. That is why I think it is very important that we hear all the evidence before making a judgment on the basis of these e-mails.
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Labour)
The Secretary of State said yesterday and has repeated in his statement today that he has written to Lord Justice Leveson asking to accelerate when he gives his evidence. Given that others were implicated in yesterday’s revelations, including Alex Salmond in Scotland, is it not now incumbent on them to do likewise so that they can give evidence on oath to clear up these issues?
There are questions for politicians of all parties to answer in this process. Obviously, we have an independent judicial review and it is for Lord Justice Leveson to decide the timings, but it is very important that all parties engage constructively in this process, because—and these are the words of Ms Harman on “The Andrew Marr Show”—this is an opportunity to solve a problem that has bedevilled politics for a very long time. That is why constructive engagement with this process, not jumping on bandwagons, is the way forward.
David Rutley (Macclesfield, Conservative)
I can confirm that the permanent secretary was closely involved in this very important decision at every stage of the process. In particular, he gave me strong advice about how to ensure that the process was handled objectively and fairly and was seen to be handled objectively and fairly.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West, Labour)
May I remind the Secretary of State that on
If I used Adam Smith as my invisible hand, why did I take four decisions that went completely against what News Corporation wanted? This was a quasi-judicial process, which I took enormous trouble to ensure was performed objectively and fairly. I have explained to the hon. Gentleman and to the House many times the steps that I took to do that.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire, Conservative)
The evidence would certainly suggest that that was also an exaggeration. That is why we must hear all the evidence submitted to the Leveson inquiry from all sides and allow Lord Justice Leveson, who is truly independent in this process and has no political bandwagon to jump on, to come to his considered conclusions.
Tom Harris (Glasgow South, Labour)
In my experience, Secretaries of State speak more to their political advisers than they do to their Ministers or, indeed, to members of their own families. The House is being invited to believe either that the relationship between the Secretary of State and Adam Smith was so dysfunctional that the Secretary of State was unaware of the extent and nature of the communication between Adam Smith and News Corp or that it was a good relationship, in which case the Secretary of State must, as the code of conduct states, take full responsibility for the conduct of his political adviser.
I point the hon. Gentleman to what Adam Smith said this morning. He said that
“the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from the Secretary of State.”
Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth, Conservative)
The Secretary of State’s integrity is highlighted by the meticulous way he went through the process, outlined at the time and now, taking independent advice. As we have heard today, that, together with the gap between some of the evidence that we have heard over the past 24 hours and reality, surely highlights why we should do as the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday and wait for the inquiry to finish and listen to what Lord Leveson has to say.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a huge opportunity to get things right. We have heard evidence that clearly has some flaws in it, and anyone looking at it sensibly and objectively would say that we need to hear all the evidence and not jump to conclusions.
Yes, I am happy to identify all communications with Alex Salmond’s office, if we have not already published them. I believe that we published all communications relating to this bid, but I will look into that.
Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Conservative)
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and for the manner in which he is answering questions. The only thing that I think affects Parliament is the allegation by Ms Harman that a statement to Parliament was leaked in advance. Will the Secretary of State clear that up and say that it is absolutely untrue?
There are allegations in an e-mail that that did not happen, and I am unable to say to the House today what the truth or otherwise was of the communiqué of the account of a conversation made by Fred Michel, which we know in other instances contained a number of exaggerations. But that is exactly why we have Lord Justice Leveson looking into the whole matter. He is independent—a High Court judge—and will get to the bottom of it.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North, Labour)
The Secretary of State has said that he did not know the content of the communications between his special adviser and BSkyB, but he did know that they were happening and he assured the House that he would publish all the communications between his Department and BSkyB. Why were those communications, which he did know of—even though he says he did not know their content—not included? After the meeting on
The Prime Minister did not communicate with me any conversations he had had because he was not responsible for this bid. I was solely responsible for the bid. I did not know the content of the communications until yesterday when I saw them, nor did I know their volume. I knew that Adam Smith was authorised to be one of a number of contact points within my Department, but having seen those communications it is clear that the volume and content was inappropriate. What is significant for this bid is that they did not in any way at all affect my decisions. The evidence for that is very simple: the decisions I took were not the decisions that News Corporation wanted.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North, Conservative)
The Secretary of State is a man of honour and substance. I have just learnt that Rupert Murdoch has just told the Leveson inquiry that the former Prime Minister, Mr Brown, telephoned him and told him that he had “declared war” on him when he learned that The Sun newspaper had switched sides to the Conservatives. Does the Secretary of State think that the Opposition are using this as a self-serving opportunity to bash News International?
Geraint Davies (Swansea West, Labour)
Given the intimate relationship between any special adviser and their Secretary of State, is the right hon. Gentleman seriously contending that he did not know the content and the volume of what was transmitted? Why did he not release all the content when he promised to do so?
I did not know the volume and content of those text messages until yesterday. I have said that. My former special adviser has said that he had those communications without authorisation from me, but they are now published and that is why we have taken the action we have.
David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate, Conservative)
I do not know Mr Michel, but I do know that the Secretary of State is a man of integrity and honesty. Will he make it crystal clear whether he recognises any of the conversations that have been attributed to him in Mr Michel’s e-mails?
None whatsoever, and indeed Mr Michel has acknowledged that in the 54 e-mails in which he refers to conversations with me, he in fact did not have any conversations at all.
It is a matter of great regret to me that what happened happened, but if I may say so, I think the Labour party also has some lessons to learn about managing special advisers when it was in office.
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham, Conservative)
“Sentence first—verdict afterwards” may well be a principle that is sufficient in Alice in Wonderland, but it is not the principle of English law, it is not the principle of public life and it is certainly not a principle that ought to be observed in this House. Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the opportunism that we have heard from Ms Harman today demonstrates contempt for due process—the precise form of contempt of which he is himself accused?
My hon. and learned Friend makes an excellent point. Let me remind him of what Lord Justice Leveson said this morning. He said, “I do not seek to constrain Parliament, but it seems to me that the better course is to allow this inquiry to proceed.”
Derek Twigg (Halton, Labour)
It seems strange that the Secretary of State brings a special adviser into the centre of Government on a very commercially difficult contract or situation, and does not know what he is doing. But may I ask the Secretary of State a very simple question: why did the permanent secretary decide that the contact point would be a special adviser and not a civil servant?
Adam Smith was a part of the process that was authorised by the permanent secretary. But he was not the only point of contact—there were many, but he was one of the points of contact. You need to do that. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] Well, we set up a process that was approved by the permanent secretary, and we also put in place many safeguards to make sure that my decisions were taken objectively, and seen to be taken objectively. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there is no evidence whatsoever, looking at my actual decisions, that any of those conversations had any influence on them whatsoever.
Charlie Elphicke (Dover, Conservative)
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his statement. Under this Government we have seen action on phone hacking, action with the Leveson inquiry, action on media regulation reform, and importantly, the Secretary of State tells us, no action in favour of the Murdoch empire in all the decisions that he made. Does he agree that that is in sharp contrast to all the actions of the previous Government which allowed the bent and dysfunctional media culture to be perpetuated in this country?
That is absolutely right, and that is why we are trying to draw a line under what happened under previous Governments of all colours, and trying to sort this problem out. I think it is time that Labour Members took a responsible attitude, because this is an opportunity to do something about this problem and we are trying to do so honestly and conscientiously.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central, Labour)
The more that Government Back Benchers claim that the Secretary of State is a man of integrity, the less the public are likely to believe them. My hon. Friend Derek Twigg asked whose suggestion it was that a special adviser—
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not impugn integrity. [Interruption.] Order. I do not require any assistance from any Government Back Bencher; I am perfectly capable of handling this matter myself and that is what I am doing, and they should be quiet. Derek Twigg asked a question; it was answered. Bill Esterson should now ask his question, but without the aspersions. Let us just have the question.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central, Labour)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. To answer the question, we need to know whose suggestion it was that Adam Smith should be the point of contact for News Corporation and why the key contact was a special adviser, not a civil servant.
We will look into all the processes—[Interruption.] We are very happy to learn lessons about the way this was structured. The hon. Gentleman can pick on one element of what happened, but he should not ignore the big picture. The big picture was that we put a huge lock in the process to make sure that my decisions were impartial and seen to be impartial, and that was the involvement of independent regulators—something that we did not have to do, but that we chose to do. That, in the end, is what demonstrates that my decisions were taken on the basis of objective evidence.
I do wish that Labour would allow these issues to be considered in a calm manner, because they are very, very difficult issues. We need to get the right solution. We are not saying that we got everything right in our party over the years; we are saying that there is a process of reform that needs to happen—very importantly, a process of reform that protects freedom of expression, which is the foundation of our democracy, and we want
to work with all parties to sort this out. That is the way to deal with this issue—not the rank opportunism that I am afraid we have seen this morning.
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith, Labour)
On the key issue of reference to the Competition Commission, the Secretary of State did not take independent advice, so his protestations that he did not always act in Mr Murdoch’s interests sound rather lame. Is he not in fact following his own office’s advice to Murdoch, which is to find some political cover for a decision that he had already taken?
I did take the independent advice. The independent advice was that this should be referred to the Competition Commission, and I immediately did as I am required to do in the legal process: I wrote to News Corporation and said, “I am minded to refer this to the Competition Commission.” It then has the right to offer undertakings in lieu, and I have a duty to consider those undertakings. I then wrote to the independent regulators again, to get their opinion before I took any further decisions. We have been scrupulously fair in this entire process. The proof of the pudding is that we took decisions that News Corporation did not like.
Robert Halfon (Harlow, Conservative)
I believe that the success of the Olympics shows my right hon. Friend to be an outstanding Secretary of State. Does he agree that it is wrong to jump on the political bandwagon of resignation before knowing the full facts?
That is absolutely right, which is why I am looking forward to giving my full evidence to the Leveson inquiry, so that I can set the record straight on a number of points.
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. The trouble with the hon. Gentleman is that he is as excitable as he is good-natured. He is a very amiable fellow, but we do not need the hon. Gentleman’s advice on decorum. He should calm himself and take whatever tablets are required for the purpose.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South, Labour)
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has had three opportunities to answer the question about why Adam Smith was appointed to be the lead contact. Let me give him a fourth opportunity to stand up and give some information to the House, unlike last year, when he was supposed to release documents to the House.
All the roles in that process were agreed by the permanent secretary. I do not know what greater level of independence the hon. Gentleman wants for that decision, but let me tell him that we could not have been more transparent and more determined to make sure that the whole process was fair. We know from what happened yesterday that everything did not go right in the process. That is why, unfortunately, Adam Smith has chosen to resign—because some of his contacts
were inappropriate. But the crucial question is whether any of that communication affected my decision, and it did not.
I will not confirm it because I do not think it was a process that was—[Hon. Members: “Answer.”] I am trying to answer the question, with the greatest respect to hon. Members. I do not think the process was me asking for certain people to play certain roles. It was a more fluid process than that, but the structures that we ended up with were ones of which the permanent secretary approved. That is the crucial point.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)
The ministerial code is very clear that the Minister is responsible for the actions of his special adviser. On that basis, was the Secretary of State negligent in not finding out what his special adviser was doing and controlling him? For the fifth time, did the Secretary of State ask for him to be appointed as the point man?
For the fifth time, the arrangements were approved by the permanent secretary. I do not think there was any process of me asking for certain people to play certain roles. As I said, I think it was a more fluid process than that, but the permanent secretary approved the processes that were happening.
Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald, Conservative)
I, too, know the Secretary of State as a man of great integrity and honour. Does he agree that we ought to await the outcome of the Leveson inquiry before jumping to very dangerous conclusions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When it comes to the relationship between the press and politicians, we are all partial to a certain extent. Some of us are in government and some of us in opposition. We all have different relationships. Because of my understanding of that, I tried to construct the process for the BSkyB bid to be as objective as possible. If we are to find a way forward, we need to ask the advice of someone objective, someone impartial, someone who is outside the political process. That is why I thought we had cross-party agreement that we would set up this very detailed process and let it run its course.
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central, Labour)
It is right that the Secretary of State has made a statement to the House today. Sadly, our First Minister has not shown the same respect to the Scottish Parliament or to Scotland. Given the revelations yesterday and the revelations coming out of the First Minister’s office today, is it not right that Alex Salmond gives evidence as soon as possible to the Leveson inquiry and so does his special adviser, Kevin Pringle?
That is obviously a matter for the First Minister for Scotland, but all politicians need to be open and transparent, and all politicians need to show humility in dealing with this problem.
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley, Conservative)
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central, Conservative)
I have a high regard for the work that the Secretary of State has done, particularly in relation to the Olympics, which are coming to our great city in a few weeks. On the specific issue of the statement that he has given, can he tell the House when he hopes to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry? It is in his interest and in the interest of us all that we hear his full evidence as soon as possible.
I have written to Lord Leveson to say that I would like to give my evidence as soon as possible. At present it is scheduled to be towards the end of May, but it is a matter for Lord Leveson and I will respect everything he says.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South, Labour)
According to the e-mail trail that was released yesterday, a day after Alex Salmond asked for help to smooth the way for The Sun to support the Scottish National party, News Corporation knew about a phone call scheduled between Alex Salmond and the Culture Secretary to lobby on behalf of the BSkyB bid. Who set up that call and how did News Corporation know about it?
I do not know the answer to that question, but I will happily try to find out for the hon. Gentleman.
Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North, Conservative)
Does my right hon. Friend share my curiosity as to why it was the deputy leader of the Labour party who chose to respond to his statement today, rather than Mr Lewis, the shadow Secretary of State? Could it—
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a question that is completely irrelevant to the terms of the statement. [Interruption.] It is simply not relevant. The hon. Gentleman should go and do his homework.
Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian, Labour)
One of the more bizarre revelations has been the taste in classical music and ballet of the Secretary of State. I believe we may just have witnessed his swan-song. Why, in response to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend Mr Lewis, did he say that he had no locus to intervene when the Business Secretary was dealing with the matter, yet today he told us that he did offer to help? Which is it?
I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business. However, it is my responsibility to understand what is going on in the media industry and the impact of this very important sector, which employs thousands of people. That is why I was interested to find out what was going on.
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. For the benefit not of the House, but of those who are listening to and interested in our proceedings, I make the factual observation that a request for a statement by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport very properly comes from the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, rather than from the shadow Secretary of State for International Development.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East, Labour)
The very many people throughout the country who wrote to us when the responsibility for the decision was transferred to the Secretary of State will now feel that they were absolutely right and the Government were absolutely wrong. Can the Secretary of State explain why he is such a poor manager of his staff that he did not know what messages were going out under the authority of the special permission to communicate?
I do not know every single text message and e-mail that every single person in my Department sends. When I found out yesterday about the text messages that were sent, it was a matter of profound regret, which is why Adam Smith has taken the decision to resign today.
Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth, Conservative)
I believe that my right hon. Friend is a man of exceptional talent and integrity. Does he agree that in this House we should believe that people are innocent until proven guilty, and the right way to get an answer to this issue is through the Leveson inquiry?
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South, Labour)
Department and News Corporation? Presumably a submission went to the permanent secretary and to the Secretary of State. Will he put that submission in the Library? Did he have any conversations with the permanent secretary about the appropriateness of a politically appointed special adviser having that role, and not a civil servant?
I have already answered that question and will take no lectures from the Labour party on how to manage special advisers, such as Damian McBride.
Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire, Conservative)
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he is a godfather to any of Mr Murdoch’s children and whether he agrees that the Labour party is showing a fair amount of brass neck?
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and as a reminder to the Secretary of State, I point out that the statement the Secretary of State has offered the House is on the Leveson inquiry, not godparents. I think that we are clear on that.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South, Labour)
I will take no lectures from the hon. Lady or anyone in the Labour party on the behaviour of special advisers. With the exception of this particular incident, the behaviour of my special adviser was exemplary.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk, Conservative)
The issues raised by the statement go to the heart of the important matter of media regulation. My constituents watching today will have seen a Minister with an unblemished record and the highest integrity carefully answering questions at the Dispatch Box without bravura in the spirit of transparency, in stark contrast to the hysterical, populist and demeaning behaviour of Labour Front Benchers, who have everything to be embarrassed about when it comes to their 13 years in office.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am not quite sure what the question is, but let me say in response to an earlier question that I think I have comprehensively blown my chances of becoming a godparent to any Murdoch.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central, Labour)
Will the Secretary of State take this final opportunity to throw light on a critical question: what discussions did he have with his permanent secretary, and what advice did he offer, on the appointment of Adam Smith as the key contact?
I have told the House many times that I am aware of no discussions about specific roles in relation to what Adam Smith did, but what we ended up with was something that was sanctioned by the permanent secretary, which is about as independent as it gets.