The opposition and legal professionals have questioned the suitability of Jeremy Hunt as the key government decision-maker with respect to News Corporation's proposed takeover of BSkyB, after the culture secretary was handed the power to rule on the bid's outcome.
The quasi-judicial role associated with the takeover was transferred to Hunt on Tuesday following the explosive revelation that the business secretary, Vince Cable, had "declared war" on News Corp. The move enabled Cable to remain in his position, but having lost both credibility and a critical part of his remit.
Controversy over Hunt's suitability was raised immediately after the transference of responsibility was announced, with attention focusing on past remarks that Hunt had made with respect both to general competition issues and to the News Corp-Sky case in particular.
In an interview with the Financial Times in June, Hunt expressed the view that there ought not to be any competition-related impediment to the News Corp-Sky deal going ahead. The deal - which has been given the go-ahead by European regulators - would result in News Corp buying up the remaining 60.9 per cent of shares in Sky that it does not already own.
"It does seem to me that News Corp do control Sky already, so it isn't clear to me that, in terms of media plurality, there is a substantive change, but I don't want to second-guess what regulators might decide," he told the newspaper.
Hunt's past comments were cited by the shadow business secretary John Denham in a letter to Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary.
Denham's letter drew upon statements on Hunt's own website, in which the culture secretary is described as "a cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch's contribution to the health of British television" and lauds Murdoch's role in creating "variety and choice" in the television landscape.
Meanwhile, it has also emerged that Hunt met with Rupert Murdoch's son, James, shortly after the proposed deal involving News Corp and Sky was announced. According to The Guardian, a spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) described the encounter as an "informal first meeting". Department officials were not present at the 28 June meeting.
Laudatory statements 'do not amount to a pre-judgement'
In a written response to Denham's missive, Sir Gus said that Hunt's previous remarks did not, in his view, preclude the culture secretary from adjudicating fairly on the News Corp-Sky competition case. He added that there were no legal barriers to the DCMS exercising decision-making power on competition issues.
"I took advice from lawyers and, in providing advice that there was no such impediment I was, of course, aware of the former statements from Mr Hunt which you cite," Sir Gus wrote.
"I am satisfied that those statements do not amount to a pre-judgement of the case in question; indeed the third quotation explicitly states that Mr Hunt would not want to 'second guess what regulators might decide'."
But Sir Gus' response did not quieten talk of the final decision on News Corp-Sky being contested through the judicial review process.
"This does make it arguable he has prejudged the issue, increasing the chance that an interested party may challenge the decision by way of judicial review," Stephen Critchley, a solicitor, told The Independent.
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