26 February 2016

The night I saw Jeremy Hunt hide behind a tree before dinner with James Murdoch…


In the purge of the entire Telegraph Blogs network, which was taken down without warning this week, many writers lost access to years of work. I’m one such person who has discovered, with a jolt, that the internet is not for ever. But in the wake of this outrageous move by the Telegraph there has been no public backlash whatsoever, which should tell us journalists something. However, I was annoyed to lose a few posts that people had seemed to like at the time. Thanks to the efforts of Anthony Wells at YouGov, I am happy to announce that those posts have been found by the use of something called Wayback Machine, which stores what publishers ditch. Here, because the Telegraph has taken it down and don’t seem to want it, is a version of my piece on Jeremy Hunt and a tree, from April 2012. I’ll also publish the piece on Pat Kane and Alvin Stardust, if there is any interest.

There are moments writing about politics when one thinks: could this actually get any sillier? Modern government is particularly prone to looking daft because it is built on two incompatible ideas, one old and the other relatively new. The first idea is that government should appear to be relatively, given the age-old constraints, dignified. Ministers rely on protocol and the flummery of office so that they look authoritative, in order that we, the citizenry, comply when they tell us what to do.

On top of that there is the more recently invented idea that politicians must appear slick and ahead of the news cycle at all times. But humans being what they are, and journalists and voters being more sceptical than they once were, it is extremely difficult to maintain dignity and stay on top of an ever-faster news cycle. We marvel as we watch them try to pull off the impossible but wonder: do any of them really know what they’re doing?

Yet even having made such allowances it is possible for a sceptical observer like me to still be surprised by the bizarre things some politicians will do.
Reading the Michel/Hunt/Smith emails, my mind kept wandering back to the night of May 20th 2010. The Coalition was only a few days old and I found myself invited, along with other colleagues, MPs and guests, to hear a lecture that James Murdoch was giving that evening. Rupert Murdoch would be there. I worked then for the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by News Corp, and naturally a large number of people from the company’s newspapers in London ended up on the guest list.

James Murdoch was delivering a speech to launch something at UCL called “The Centre for Digital Humanities”.

It says on the UCL website: “Digital humanities research takes place at the intersection of digital technologies and humanities. It aims to produce applications and models that make possible new kinds of research, both in the humanities disciplines and in computer science and its allied technologies. It also studies the impact of these techniques on cultural heritage, memory institutions, libraries, archives and digital culture.”

If you are any clearer than I am after reading that explanation of the digital humanities then good for you.

The plan for the evening was that James Murdoch would give a speech explaining his views on copyright and intellectual property rights. Then there would be a drinks party afterwards, and a smart dinner for James Murdoch, to which most of us weren’t invited. I planned to listen to the lecture, have a drink, scout for some political gossip and then head home.

Then came an invite from Fred Michel (he of the Hunt emails). Would I like to join another party for dinner, separate from the James Murdoch dinner? He was hosting it in a private room at the Charlotte Street Hotel, a short stroll from the venue hosting the lecture and drinks. Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, would be there along with two Tory MPs (not on their feet denouncing Michel today, I notice) and various other News Corp people. I know and like Fred Michel, and I accepted the invitation.

The night in question was balmy and the packed lecture hall was much too hot as James Murdoch got to his feet. I like to stand at the back at these things – a hangover from the days when I smoked and might nip out if a political speech was too boring. I also learnt early on as a Sunday journalist that sometimes you can divine a lot about a speaker by watching the room and all the others in it while a speech is being delivered. Not this time. It was hard staying awake.

The room got steadily more stuffy and it became very difficult to concentrate. James Murdoch was not, let me put it politely, providing a lot of laughs in his speech about intellectual property. In his defence, he hadn’t been given the best topic to play with. I was hungry, and started to look forward to the canapés and a glass of something cold. Eventually, the speech ended.
But the party wasn’t up to much; it was just a lot of people trying to get a word with James Murdoch, presumably to say how riveting his speech had been. I snaffled a drink, wandered around for 20 minutes or so, talked to a few people I knew, was introduced to James Murdoch’s charming wife and then decided to go out to get some air and make a few calls.

It was then, as I stood on the steps with my Blackberry, that I spotted the then new Secretary of State for Culture Jeremy Hunt in the middle distance, walking across the square. He was walking fast and was glued to his mobile phone. He was heading in my direction, towards the Murdoch drinks party. I don’t know whether he saw me, or if something else diverted him, but he suddenly changed direction and darted to the side of the square and over towards a large tree.

I know Hunt, he’s a thoroughly decent man, and I thought about going over to help him with directions. He was obviously looking for the Murdoch drinks party and I could help point him towards it. But he was deep in conversation on his mobile, although he kept looking over towards the door, and the party, behind me. So I decided to just stand there and see what happened. Hunt then moved himself behind the tree so that he was partially obscured.

I wandered back into the party and ran into one of the organisers. The Culture Secretary is out there hiding behind a tree, I said. We know, came the response, but he doesn’t want to come in because all the media correspondents are here.

I went out for another look and Hunt was no longer next to the tree, or as far as I could see behind it either. The guests from the party were starting to trickle away, I was starving and it should have been time for dinner. I went in search of Fred Michel to ask when our group of 10 or so people would leave to eat. There was clearly a problem, dinner would be delayed but I should go ahead to the restaurant.

As I left, so did various Fleet Street media correspondents, separately but at the same time as me (presumably heading to the pub). We walked towards the gates across the square, at which point Hunt reappeared, walking smack into the group of media journalists he had been seeking to avoid. I think one of them was Steve Hewlett. A nervous looking Hunt certainly said: “Hello Steve.”

I was really starving now, and had to order some crisps when I got to the Charlotte Street Hotel. We had to wait a while for Fred Michel and Hunt’s special advisor to turn up. We ate and discussed the new Coalition government, which I was grumpy about, thinking that it would turn out to be a pantomime horse (how wrong could I be?).

But what had Hunt been playing at in the previous hour or so? There was embarrassment and nobody would say when I asked. Later, I established that it was this. Hunt, I was told, had really wanted to go to the post-lecture dinner with James Murdoch but he didn’t on any account want to be seen by the assembled hacks going to either the lecture or the drinks party because it might suggest he was too close to News International. He was, it was said, extremely jumpy about the whole thing. So it was arranged that he would skip the lecture and drinks before slipping in to the discreet dinner with Murdoch.

But on the night, there had been a logistical cock-up and he had been dropped at the wrong gate. Realising that he couldn’t get to the private dinner without going through the party, he had to find somewhere to hide and call, one presumes, his special advisor who was inside the drinks party. Hence the tree. I am told there was then panic as the party organisers looked for a way to get him to the dinner without him being seen by the much larger crowd at the drinks bash. That proved impossible and he ran into us.

The hiding behind a tree should be seen very much in the context of his subsequent handling of the BSkyB bid. That night at UCL Jeremy Hunt wanted to be close to News International, and to have dinner with James Murdoch, but he didn’t want to be seen being close to News International. How apt, when one considers what followed.

Iain Martin is Editor CapX