Ever since it emerged that the office of Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, had been in regular contact with Frederic Michel, a lobbyist for News International, at a time when Mr Hunt was to judge whether the company’s bid for BSkyB could go ahead, a whiff of foul-play has been hanging over the government. At first, it seemed Mr Hunt would summarily be forced to resign, following the incessant bad press that the government was attracting after the disclosure. But he is still there. And David Cameron is still defending him.
To be sure, a person is innocent until proven guilty. But this implies that there is at least a procedure to find out either way. In the case of Mr Hunt, Mr Cameron rejected an independent inquiry by Sir Alex Allan, and called for the Leveson inquiry to be used as the proper place to ascertain whether Mr Hunt had breached ministerial duties and acted improperly. Mr Cameron clearly hoped he could bury the bad news; at the time, Mr Hunt and the other protagonists in this sub-plot of the media ethics affair were not due to appear before the inquiry for another month. Lord Justice Leveson himself, however, said assessing whether Mr Hunt failed to act in a quasi-judicial capacity was not his job. Mr Cameron ignored him.
This alone suggests either a fierce loyalty by Mr Cameron to his minister, or that there is something to hide. A number of things have since emerged. Mr Michel told Leveson this week that he was a compulsive texter, and that he had been in contact not just with Adam Smith, the special adviser who resigned when the contact between the department and company was revealed, but also with Mr Hunt. While the text messages were very friendly – Robert Jay QC, lead counsel for the inquiry, even asked whether his text messages amounted to “schmoozing”, a suggestion denied by Mr Michel – this is not a smoking gun that shows Mr Hunt was guilty of acting improperly.
Mr Hunt had suggested, though, that the contact channel with Mr Michel that his special adviser had cultivated, had been unknown to him. Mr Smith contradicted this claim on Friday, telling Leveson that:
Even if other members of the department did not know, precisely, the amount of contact I was receiving from Mr Michel, I do not believe that it could have been a surprise to anybody that Mr Michel was contacting me on a very regular basis.
Perhaps more damagingly, he went on to claim:
The fact that other members of the department appear to have had contact with Mr Michel also leads me to question whether all the references to ‘JH’ which appear in Mr Michel’s emails do in fact refer to me.
If true, the ‘rogue operator’ defence crumbles. Ominously, Mr Smith added that Downing Street had tried to alter his resignation letter to make it seem as though his actions had strayed beyond the proper limits of his job. Some might see this as an example of the establishment trying to close ranks.
What is more concerning is that before Mr Hunt had taken on the quasi-judicial role in the BSkyB case (that is, before Vince Cable was stripped of it for telling undercover reporters that he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch’s company) he had expressed strong opinions in favour of the takeover. He had even sent the Prime Minister a memo advocating a support for the takeover. If Mr Cable’s comments indicated that he was biased against the takeover, writing a memo in support of it would appear to be just as explicit about where one’s inclinations lie. Mr Hunt cannot have been said to be impartial when his firm opinion for one side of the argument was well-known by the Prime Minister.
And yet, Mr Cameron said just that. On daytime TV on Friday, Mr Cameron pathetically claimed that what Mr Hunt had said before taking over the arbiter’s role was irrelevant – rather, it was how he conducted that role that should be assessed. Apparently, when he had to, he did act with neutrality. In the Pinochet case, Lord Hoffman was not seen as impartial because of his links with Amnesty International. And yet, as a judge, he too presumably ‘acted’ with impartiality: in fact it’s almost always impossible to tell whether or not someone did act impartially. More important is the appearance of impartiality, especially in connection with a role that demands public confidence. So it is not just how you act, it is what you have said. And dare I say it, even if Mr Hunt were somehow able to put all his beliefs aside when judging, the evidence that Mr Smith has given casts even this into doubt.
In the end, the question is: who is this going to be more damaging for? Jeremy Hunt, the minister who seems now to at least have known what his special advisor was up to; or Mr. Cameron, the person who appointed Mr. Hunt in the clear knowledge of his personal view on the BskyB bid.
The Prime Minister is an intelligent person. He can’t reasonably believe his own line of defence. What Mr. Cameron has done is to place the interests of his party, and his friends and colleagues, above the interests of the country in the appearance of independence at the heart of government. He sorely needs to get his priorities right.