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Jeremy Hunt seeking new advice for BSkyB takeover

 Jeremy Hunt seeking new advice for BSkyB takeover

The culture secretary is seeking fresh advice from regulators on News Corp's takeover bid for BSkyB, amid the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Jeremy Hunt has written to media regulator Ofcom after the 168-year-old paper was shut down.

Mr Hunt said its closure was "a significant change to the media landscape".

And he asked for a fresh assessment of the proposed buyout by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, which also owned the paper.

BSkyB's share price has fallen again and is now down 17% since last week.

The price has dipped below the 700p offer price proposed last year by News Corp, when it expressed interest in bidding for the 61% of shares in BSkyB it did not own.

Meanwhile, the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was allegedly hacked, have had a "constructive" meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Her parents Bob and Sally Dowler and her sister Gemma told him the deleting of messages on her phone had given them hope she was alive and discussed their hopes for the forthcoming public inquiries.

Afterwards their solicitor, Mark Lewis, added to the pressure on News International's chief executive and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, when he said the Dowlers thought she should resign.

He said: "She should take responsibility and do the honourable thing and resign. They don't see why Rebekah Brooks should stay in her job."

In other developments:

  • The BBC understands Rebekah Brooks could be questioned by police as a witness, rather than a suspect. Mrs Brooks has denied having had any knowledge of hacking while she was editor from 2000 to 2003.
  • The chairman of the media select committee, Tory MP John Whittingdale, said the BSkyB bid should be put on hold in the present "poisonous atmosphere".

 be unwilling to publicly sound the death knell of the planned Murdoch buy out of BSkyB but behind the scenes funeral arrangements are being made.

The reason? Public opinion.

Throughout the whole hacking scandal, the government has found itself lagging well behind public opinion and is determined not to allow itself to be seen as somehow on the side of Rupert Murdoch.

The problem ministers face, however, is in finding a politically palatable way of killing the deal without invoking the wrath of Mr Murdoch or the courts.

A reference to the Competition Commission would still leave the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt with the responsibility for taking the final decision.

A reference to Ofcom would not involve the government but Ofcom in the past has shown a marked reluctance to block such deals.

In his letter to Ofcom, and the OFT, Mr Hunt writes: "I would be grateful if you could indicate whether this development (and/or the events surrounding it) gives you any additional concerns in respect of plurality over and above those raised in your initial report to me on this matter received on 31 December 2010."

He goes on to ask if last week's events caused them to reconsider previous advice about the "credibility, sustainability or practicalities of the undertakings offered by News Corporation".

Commons vote

Labour leader Ed Miliband has demanded the BSkyB bid be referred to the Competition Commission and said the government could not rely on assurances from News Corp executives in the wake of the hacking scandal.

He has put down a motion calling for the bid to be delayed until the criminal investigation is completed and is seeking support from the Liberal Democrats and some Tories.

Sources have told the BBC that despite recognising the growing pressure to put the BSkyB bid on hold, Mr Hunt has to act in a quasi-judicial manner and cannot legally simply announce a delay until after the police have completed their inquiries into phone hacking.

News Corp chairman and chief executive, Rupert Murdoch, flew into London on Sunday to personally handle his organisation's response to the phone-hacking crisis.

After visiting News International for talks with senior executives, Mr Murdoch appeared later with Mrs Brooks. Asked what his priority was, he said: "This one," gesturing at her and smiling.

She is under pressure to quit after the paper was closed amid the damaging allegations about hacking.

She was the editor when voicemails on 13-year-old Milly Dowler's mobile phone were allegedly intercepted, but has denied knowing it was happening.

The emergence of those and other allegations last week prompted News International to announce the closure of NoW.

The paper's final edition, published on Sunday, included a full-page apology for hacking the mobile phones of hundreds of people. "Quite simply, we lost our way," it said.

E-mails found

Meanwhile, the BBC understands News International found e-mails in 2007 that appeared to show payments were made to police for information for stories.

The evidence of alleged criminal behaviour was not handed to the police for investigation until 20 June 2011, BBC business editor Robert Peston reported.

Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks met on Sunday after he flew into the UK

The e-mails appeared to show Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World from 2003 to 2007, authorising payments to the police for help with stories, Mr Peston reported.

And they also appeared to show that phone-hacking went wider than the activities of a single rogue reporter, which the News of the World claimed at the time.

News International said it was "co-operating fully with the police".

The government has announced two independent inquiries into the scandal, firstly a judge-led probe into the activities of the NoW and other papers, and the failure of the original police investigation from 2005 into phone-hacking.

The second inquiry will examine the ethics and culture of the press.

Posted on Monday 11th July 2011

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