Revelations filled Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice today, as Adam Smith, former special advisor to Jeremy Hunt, and Frédéric Michel, chief lobbyist for News Corp took to the stand at the Leveson Inquiry.
Adam Smith, who resigned from his position as Jeremy Hunt’s aide after the Inquiry released a collection of emails between himself and Michel, told the court that David Cameron had appointed Hunt to oversee the BSkyB bid, despite demonstrating his support for the move to the Prime Minister.
Smith explained that Hunt sent the Prime Minister a memo, firmly taking the side of James Murdoch, dismissing and criticising the BBC. In the memo, Hunt also tells Cameron the bid should not be blocked, and asks him to intervene in the decision which should have been the sole responsibility of Vince Cable.
The former aide described a “very close working relationship” with Jeremy Hunt, and described that the pair had an understanding of what was expected of him in his role as special advisor. He added that he and his team were unfamiliar with a “quasi-judicial role”, until Hunt was appointed to oversee the bid, but explained that he approached it in the same way as every other policy.
He added: “My understanding was that Mr Hunt had to decide on the media plurality issues, and Mr Hunt himself had to decide on the bid. There was no difference in the way I approached it.”
Describing his role as Hunt’s advisor, Smith explained acted as a point of contact for organisations wishing to speak to the Secretary of State. He said he would be on the “receiving end of people phoning up to have a grumble about a process”. With particular focus on the BSkyB bid, Smith told the court he acted as “a buffer and a channel of communication” for News Corp.
When asked by Robert Jay QC whether he felt the assertion that Hunt was a “cheerleader” for News Corp as true, Smith disagreed, stating: “He didn’t really have that much of a relationship with ether of the Murdoch’s — he tended to deal with, as the inquiry has heard, Michel.”
Towards the end of his brief spell of evidence, which will continue tomorrow, Smith told the court that his views on the bid which were based purely on expert evidence, were broadly the same as Hunt’s. He added: “I didn’t particularly mind either way whether it happened or not. In a funny sort of way I didn’t see what everyone was getting so worked up about.”
In a much longer session of evidence, Jay thoroughly questioned Frédéric Michel on the emails exchanged between himself, Jeremy Hunt and Adam Smith. Jay detailed more than 1000 text messages which were sent between News Corp and the bid office, along with 191 phone-calls and 158 emails.
Michel insisted to the court that he was under the “impression” that Hunt was aware of the details being passed to him by Smith, in relation to the BSkyB bid, and believed that the “feedback” he was receiving from the aide had been discussed with Hunt. Michel added that the purpose of his contact was to “check the temperature at Westminster.”
The lobbyist also told the court that he received no legal advice into the meaning of a quasi-judicial role, but was aware it was regarded as inappropriate to have discussions with the Secretary of State.
He said: “It was the first time I had to deal with such a transaction — I didn’t have specific detailed reminder of what it meant to have a quasi-judicial process. I was never of the view that it was inappropriate to try to put the view to these offices. The legal team assessed that they key element of a quasi-judicial process was not to have inappropriate contact with the secretary of state.”
Despite that, Jay outlined a range of text messages and emails contacting Hunt, and raised the question of whether his contact with Smith was appropriate. Michel consistently denied that the contact was inappropriate, and stressed that Smith did not offer him a “running commentary” of the proceedings related to the bid.
Michel said: “Smith gave me updates on timings, process, atmospherics of the day. We were in contact a lot and I guess he was being helpful on the process. I think running commentary is a very broad definition. I think it was much more precise than chit chat commentary.”
He added: “Adam has always been a very warm, professional, available adviser, and always very diligent in his work with me. The only interactions I have had with him were always professional and reliable.”
Adam Smith will appear before the inquiry to complete his evidence tomorrow morning, and Jeremy Hunt is expected to be called to give evidence next week.