Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Culture Secretary, remains under fire for his handling of his ‘quasi-judicial’ role in deciding whether News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s media company, could take full ownership of the broadcaster BSkyB. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, insists that the Leveson inquiry is the appropriate venue to determine the facts of the case, and no decision will be taken on Hunt’s position until after he appears later this month. Until then, Hunt retains the confidence of the PM.
However, some facts of the case have already been revealed, including several emails of Frederic Michel, head of public affairs at News Corp. Of particular importance was his email of 27 June 2011, stating ‘JH is now starting to look into phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No.10’s positioning.’ The government claims that the reference to ‘JH’ meant Hunt’s office in general rather than the Minister, and specifically Adam Smith, Hunt’s special advisor.
One key element of this case has been the debate about whether Hunt has breached the Ministerial Code. The Labour Party have claimed that the emails in general, and particularly the one cited above, show that Hunt did not follow the ministerial code and therefore should be removed from office. But has Hunt breached the Code?
The simple, if rather unsatisfactory, answer is: we don’t know, and we can’t know. Although we can all read the Ministerial Code, in practice it is ‘more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’. As the Code makes clear, the PM ‘is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.’ The question of whether Hunt breached the Code is therefore a matter of the PM’s interpretation. If the PM chooses, he can refer the issue to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, but he remains free to decide on the consequences of any investigation.
Notwithstanding the fact that Cameron has fully backed Hunt, and stated in Parliament that there was no evidence of Hunt breaching the Code (at least as of 30 April), has Hunt been accused of anything that could be interpreted as being against the Code? Here again the issue is blurry. Ed Miliband made three specific allegations (see the second video here) about sections of the Code that he thought had been breached. These were sections:
1.2c “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”
1.1 “Ministers of the Crown are expected to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.”
9.1 “When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”
A breach of 1.1 would only occur if there is clear evidence of some impropriety, but it is precisely that issue which remains open to question. 9.1 is also open to question, since it depends on interpretations of what constitutes ‘the most important announcements of Government policy’. Possibly more worrying for Hunt is the claim that section 1.2c has been breached. Ed Miliband said:
“In the House on 3 March the Culture Secretary told the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that “all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation” were being published. But he has now admitted that he knew, when he gave that answer, that there were exchanges that he himself had authorised between his special adviser and News Corporation. Yet none of those exchanges was disclosed, and we have 163 pages to prove it.”
However, the point at issue here is whether Adam Smith, as a special adviser, can be considered formally a part of the Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Department. Certainly, Adam Smith would not be considered an authoritative voice of the Department, and his responsibility is to the minister personally, and the government as a whole (Section 3.3 of the ministerial code), rather than a specific department. It may therefore be possible to claim that what was said in Parliament was in fact true.
As such, if David Cameron were so inclined, it is possible to interpret everything that Labour allege as breaches of the Code as being within the letter of the Code. One thing, however, is reasonably certain: the public is unlikely to take kindly to arguments being based on such technicalities.