News Corp. Lobbyist Michel Sent 1,000 Messages on BSkyB Deal
News Corp. (NWSA)’s chief European lobbyist told an inquiry he pushed for secret documents and meetings with U.K. government officials that were considered a conflict of interest during its bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc.
Fred Michel, who has handled News Corp.’s policy and public affairs in Europe since 2009, made or sent more than 1,000 phone calls, e-mails and text messages about the proposed takeover of Britain’s biggest pay-television provider to an aide to U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and other officials. He said the messages weren’t a conflict of interest.
“It’s the first time I had to deal with such a transaction and I think that was the case for many people,” Michel said today in London when asked if the contact was appropriate. “I don’t think anything inappropriate ever took place.”
The inquiry was triggered by the phone-hacking scandal at News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid in Britain and expanded to probe the overall relationship between the New York-based company and the U.K. police and politicians. Hunt’s future in U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet depends on arguing that while his aide’s contacts with News Corp. were inappropriate, his own weren’t.
Michel said internal News Corp. e-mails suggesting he had communicated directly with Hunt on the BSkyB bid were actually references to contact with Adam Smith, the former Hunt aide who resigned after the communications became public.
“I believe that whatever Mr. Smith tells me represents the view of the secretary of state,” Michel said, referring to Hunt. Smith, who has said the level of contact with Michel was inappropriate, is also testifying today.
Robert Jay, the lawyer for the inquiry, said Michel sent Department of Culture, Media and Sport officials 191 phone calls, 158 e-mails and 799 text messages, 90 percent of which were to Smith. Jay said Michel’s internal e-mails referred to Hunt’s office being supportive of the bid in a way that wasn’t made public, including saying News Corp.’s concessions in the deal meant it was “game over” for those who opposed it.
Michel described himself as a “compulsive texter.”
Hunt “shared the ultimate objective of News Corp., which was to secure the remaining shares of BSkyB,” Jay said, referring to comments attributed to Hunt by Michel. “That’s the only reasonable interpretation that could be borne on this.”
Michel was rebuffed multiple times when he attempted to set up meetings with the office of Business Secretary Vince Cable, who was in charge of reviewing the BSkyB (BSY) bid before Hunt. Cable’s adviser said that there were “huge risks for me to meet up with him to talk about anything that has to do with Ofcom business,” Jay said, referring to the U.K. media regulator.
“Making a representation to advisers or officials would be the normal way to proceed,” Michel said.
Michel said he also received an advance copy of a speech by Hunt to Parliament about the BSkyB deal, a leak Michel described in an internal e-mail as “absolutely illegal.” The lobbyist said the phrase was a “very bad joke” and that he learned later the advance notice wasn’t unusual.
Hunt, a member of Cameron’s Conservative Party, was given responsibility for reviewing News Corp.’s 7.8 billion-pound ($12.2 billion) bid for full control of BSkyB in December 2010. News Corp. dropped the bid and closed the News of the World in July to help contain the phone-hacking scandal.
Disclosure of the communications between Smith and Michel and the sensitive information they shared about Hunt’s review of the bid prompted the opposition Labour Party to call on Hunt to resign. An e-mail read out at the inquiry showed that Hunt asked the lobbyist for advice on how to form a view on the hacking scandal and its effects on the bid.
“My view is that Jeremy Hunt was probably supportive of some of the arguments we were putting forward,” Michel said after repeatedly denying he knew Hunt’s opinion on the bid.
Michel said the contact didn’t help him determine what Hunt thought of the proposed bid, and that the culture secretary was open-minded.
Jay also referred to evidence showing text messages between Hunt and Michel, which the lawyer said was “schmoozing” and weren’t related to the bid. The texts included references to tennis matches, a speech by Hunt in the House of Commons, and celebratory drinks.
Cameron had stripped Cable of responsibility for reviewing the BSkyB bid after undercover journalists recorded him saying he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch, News Corp.’s chairman and chief executive officer. Michel said it was more difficult to communicate with Cable’s office.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at firstname.lastname@example.org
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