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9:36pm UK, Tuesday April 24, 2012
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has rejected calls by Labour to resign following claims he backed News Corporation’s bid to take over BSkyB and leaked inside information to the media company.
He said it was “not a time for kneejerk reactions” and revealed he had asked to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry earlier than he was scheduled to.
Mr Hunt added he was “confident that when I present my evidence the public will see that I conducted this process with scrupulous fairness”.
He said: “We’ve heard one side of the story today but some of the evidence reported meetings and conversations that simply didn’t happen.”
Labour called for Mr Hunt to quit after the release of a 163-page dossier detailing contacts between the Culture Secretary’s office and senior News Corp executive Frederic Michel.
In a series of emails to James Murdoch and other executives, Mr Michel – then the company’s director of public affairs in Europe – reported on Mr Hunt’s thoughts about the progress of the controversial takeover plans.
The bid was dropped last July amid the furore over phone-hacking at the News Corp-owned News of the World.
In one message Mr Michel detailed what the Culture Secretary would say to Parliament the next day, noting it was “absolutely illegal” for him to obtain the information.
Another email, dating from January last year, reported Mr Hunt’s belief it would be “game over” for opponents of the BSkyB takeover once plans to spin off Sky News into a separately listed company were publicly announced.
“He said we would get there at the end, and he shared our objectives,” Mr Michel noted.
Although many of the emails refer directly to Mr Michel having spoken to “JH”, he told the inquiry this was in fact shorthand for contacts with the Culture Secretary’s office – usually his special adviser Adam Smith.
Raising a point of order in the Commons, deputy Labour leader and shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman said Mr Hunt’s conduct had fallen “woefully short” of the standard expected.
She called on him to apologise to the Commons and resign from the Cabinet.
Ms Harman said: “The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport assured the House that in respect of the News Corp bid for BSkyB that he was acting, as Secretary of State, in a quasi-judicial capacity and, above all, in a way that was impartial and fair.
“In view of the evidence that has been adduced before the Leveson Inquiry today it appears that the Secretary of State has fallen woefully short of the standards expected by his office and by the public interest.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband echoed her call for Mr Hunt to quit and warned David Cameron he had “questions to answer”.
Mr Miliband told reporters: “I myself have said all politicians, including Labour, became too close to the Murdochs but this is in a completely different league.
“We have Jeremy Hunt engaging in detailed discussions with a party, News Corporation, that is bidding to take over BSkyB and he is supposed to be the impartial judge.
“There are also questions for David Cameron to answer because now we know that just after Vince Cable was stripped of responsibility for the BSkyB takeover and it was passed to Jeremy Hunt, he, David Cameron, was having discussions with James Murdoch and others.”
But Downing Street insisted the Culture Secretary still had the Prime Minister’s full confidence.
Earlier, Mr Hunt promised to make a statement but said he needed to consider all the evidence first.
Asked if he was a cheerleader for the Murdochs, he replied: “I was not, no, but I’m not going to say any more now I’m afraid.”
An aide to Mr Hunt said he was completely confident that he had followed the proper process” and did not intend to voluntarily make a statement to MPs.
Instead he would respond to all of the points raised by James Murdoch and others when he gives evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.