We learnt little from the appearance of the Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt before Lord Leveson, save that he is barely worthy of his appellation.
Mr Hunt told the inquiry into press standards (more on that later) that he considered resigning when the extent of contacts between his office and James Murdoch’s point man at News International became known. What that little titbit of information was meant to signal, we can only speculate, but when paired with the revelation that he called his special adviser, Adam Smith, by telephone to say that a committee of the great and the good had decided to offer a lowly sacrifice to the raving press in order to sate their blood lust with the words “everybody thinks you have to go,” something of common decency withered and died. For Smith, the rational, invisible hand, operating through Mr Hunt, had taken a cruel turn.
Mr Hunt eulogised his special adviser at the Leveson enquiry but regretted that he had not somehow eleviated the pressure exerted on him from the Murdoch empire. For a ‘former’ cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch, this is a strange statement indeed. One might think as much if an actual cheerleader apologised for the pressure she was heaping on her sports team through vigorous support.
Mr Hunt was in favour of the bid to take over BSkyB when he was awarded the responsibility in the wake of Vince Cable’s proven bias. To any disinterested observer, this would be a curious understanding of the term impartial. Yet there was a logic. No one would sue the government for favouring the Murdoch bid, the cost of opposing it was high.
Then there was the argument that Mr Hunt referred the bid to Ofcom, when legal advice stated that he did not have to. Legal advice, written before the full extent of the phone-hacking scandal was known. Ignored in the wake of allegations that the police investigation into Milly Dowler’s disappearance was hindered by the activities of News International journalists. For six months Mr Hunt did very little on the bid, at no point showing any discernible political or personal courage.
This is symptomatic of the parochial, narrow-minded nature of this Government. True, New Labour were often hubristic – one thinks of the hasty sacking of Sharon Shoesmith by Ed Balls (which The Sun also pressed for vehemently) – but the Coalition’s inaction far outweighs the damage it is doing directly. The Chancellor of the Exchequer forgives multi-national companies huge tax arrears, the Prime Minister walks out of EU summits when they are discussing subjects close to his country’s own interests then lectures them from a distance and the Home and Justice Secretaries are allowed to bicker in public. Little wonder that there is so much bunting around London. Great Britain has rarely felt so small.
Unsurprising but Utterly Misguided
Labour’s attitude to the whole affair has been to cause as much collateral damage as possible. Tom Watson and Chris Bryant have been allowed to pursue their personal interests in the case, while many of the front bench have already written for The Sun on Sunday. Harriet Harman is hot on the heels of Jeremy Hunt, yet the Prime Minister has given his full backing to the Culture Secretary. In truth, the Jacobean tragedy that is the BSkyB bid does not deserve or require another head. Ridiculous as it is, Murdoch taking the head of another British politician merely emaciates the government.
The Leveson inquiry itself has been allowed to slide into irrelevance by focusing on the link between politicians and the media, rather than press standards. Meanwhile, the sources and content of their columns are ignored. The fatal flaw at the heart of this tragedy is not the arrogance of power, but the fear of it.