CULTURE secretary Jeremy Hunt’s suitability for taking over the media regulation brief was called into question yesterday as cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell said that he had taken legal advice regarding Hunt’s impartiality.
Hunt has found himself thrust into the controversy surrounding business secretary Vince Cable after David Cameron transferred all of Cable’s responsibilities relating to regulation of the media to him.
The changeover means that Hunt will be responsible for deciding whether News Corporation’s proposed buyout of Sky is allowed to go ahead.
But he was embroiled in a row over his past expression of support for News Corp, in light of Cable’s demotion over his hostility to the firm. Hunt has in the past spoken in favour of Murdoch, saying that he has “probably done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person”.
Shadow business secretary John Denham said that Hunt’s praise for Murdoch makes him unsuitable for his new role: “It is very hard to see how any decision Jeremy Hunt makes will enjoy complete confidence,” he said.
In a letter addressing Denham’s concerns, O’Donnell said that he had been forced to take into account Hunt’s past comments on News Corp in consultations with lawyers over the transfer of powers.
In the remarks Denham cited, Hunt said: “We would be the poorer and wouldn’t be saying that British TV is the envy of the world if it hadn’t been for Murdoch being prepared to take that commercial risk (by investing in Sky).”
But O’Donnell said that he was ultimately “satisfied that those statements do not amount to a pre-judgment of the case in question”.
It also emerged that Hunt had met privately with News International chief executive James Murdoch upon his appointment as culture secretary.
There were reports yesterday that News Corp is now so confident that the buyout will be passed by regulators that it has cancelled a planned advertising campaign aimed at promoting the bid.
Lord Fowler, the veteran conservative, said that the News Corp bid for Sky should be decided by an independent body.
Meanwhile, Cable was under continued pressure to quit in the wake of his remarks that he is “at war with Rupert Murdoch”. He was stripped of his regulatory powers over the media due to the remarks but MPs on both sides of the House have called for him to resign.
Backbench Tory MP Christopher Chope told City A.M. that Cable has “discredited his position. The Prime Minister and deputy prime minister recognise that he’s a failure and normally what happens is if you’re a failure then you’d get the boot”.
Jeremy Hunt declined to comment yesterday.