James Murdoch sat for more than five hours today to answer questions on the phone-hacking scandal and News Corp‘s acquisition of BSkyB. But the Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethics seemed to be focusing on someone other than the embattled scion. And therein lies the twist: The person who is likely to come out of this hearing with the most to answer for is not a Murdoch, but UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Reams of emails show possibly inappropriate exchanges between Hunt, who was involved in approving the BSkyB deal, and Murdoch, who contended a “very large public affairs engagement is normal in such a big merger.” The Labour Party has called for Hunt’s resignation in the wake of the revelations.
Inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC and Lord Justice Leveson began with questions about the phone-hacking scandal at the now-shuttered News Of The World. Murdoch maintained the position he’s had all along: that he was unaware of widespread phone hacking at the paper. Today, speaking of newsgathering practices, he allowed “whatever controls were in place failed to provide sufficient transparency.”
But the bulk of the questions were reserved for News Corp’s ultimately abandoned bid to take full ownership of BSkyB. Jay went through piles of emails that are said to have traveled from Hunt’s adviser Adam Smith to Murdoch’s public affairs chief Frederic Michel and then to Murdoch himself. The emails, as read to the inquiry, provide regular updates on the 2010-2011 progress in News Corp’s bid to acquire the part of BSkyB it did not already own. Hunt was not involved in the decision-making process at the outset, but when Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his responsibilities, Hunt replaced him. Cable lost his role after he told undercover reporters from The Telegraph he had “declared war on Murdoch.”
During the testimony today, Jay read from an email from Michel to Murdoch that said: “Confidential JH statement. Managed to get some infos…(although absolutely illegal).” Murdoch contended at the inquiry that the last part was a joke. Meanwhile, the Twittersphere over the UK is lit up with news of Hunt, who alternately has the backing of the Prime Minister or is fighting to keep his job, depending on who you read. During the evidence today, bookmakers Paddy Power said they had suspended taking bets on Hunt being the latest MP to leave the cabinet. “Something big is about to go down…??!!” the betting shop tweeted. Rupert Murdoch gives evidence tomorrow.