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8:03pm UK, Wednesday April 25, 2012
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has insisted he acted with “scrupulous fairness” during News Corporation’s bid to take over BSkyB as he faced down fresh calls to quit.
In a hastily-arranged statement to the House of Commons, Mr Hunt said his actions were not influenced in any way by contact between his office and News Corp.
“I am totally confident that when I present my evidence [to Leveson], the public will see that I conducted this process with scrupulous fairness throughout,” he told MPs.
David Cameron pledged his full support to Mr Hunt during Prime Minister’s Questions “for the excellent job he does” after a private meeting with the minister but Labour insist he has to go.
I appreciate that my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department.
Former special adviser Adam Smith
His special adviser Adam Smith has already quit in a bid to take some of the pressure off his boss but Harriet Harman told the Commons this was not enough.
Labour’s deputy leader said: “This was a controversial bid. You could have refused to take it on but you didn’t. You could have referred it to the Competition Commission, but you didn’t.
“Your role was to be impartial, but you weren’t. Your conduct should have been quasi-judicial but it fell far, far short of that and short of the standards required by your office.”
She added: “The reality is, you weren’t judging this bid, you were backing this bid and so you should resign.”
Jeremy Hunt (right) with former aide Adam Smith
Mr Hunt’s job is in jeopardy after a 163-page dossier released by the Leveson Inquiry revealed scores of emails between News Corp and his office at a time when the minister was in charge of a quasi-judicial process to decide if the BSkyB bid could go ahead.
News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel was in touch with the minister’s special adviser during the bid process, with the emails indicating a steady flow of information back to the company.
Labour said this showed secret information had been passed on and accused Mr Hunt of misleading Parliament about the extent of his contact with News Corp.
But Mr Hunt told the Commons on Wednesday that he had only found out about the communications 24 hours earlier and that they had had no bearing on his approach to the bid.
“They did not influence my decision in any way,” he told MPs, insisting that he was “totally confident” he had done nothing wrong.
“Throughout, I have strictly followed due process, seeking the advice of independent regulators – something I didn’t have to do – and after careful consideration acting on their advice,” he said.
His aide resigned around an hour before the statement, admitting that his contact with News Corp had gone “too far” and insisting it had all happened without Mr Hunt’s permission.
Mr Smith said: “I do not recognise all of what Fred Michel said, but nonetheless I appreciate that my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department, contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary that this needed to be a fair and scrupulous process,” Mr Smith said in a statement.
“Whilst I firmly believe that the process was in fact conducted scrupulously fairly, as a result of my activities it is only right for me to step down as special adviser to Jeremy Hunt.”
In the Commons, Mr Hunt said it was clear that the “volume and tone” of the emails had not been appropriate and that Mr Smith had “overstepped the mark”.
But he paid tribute to his adviser – telling MPs that he was “someone of integrity and decency and it is a matter of huge regret to me that this has happened”.
:: Read back through the PMQs and Commons blog
Following evidence from James Murdoch on Tuesday, the Culture Secretary has requested to appear before the Leveson Inquiry himself earlier than planned to set the record straight.
Meanwhile, Lord Justice Leveson has stressed that documents revealed during the Inquiry should not necessarily be “taken at face value” and warned against jumping to conclusions.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has accused Mr Hunt of being a “back-channel for the Murdochs”, says the affair has left a “shadow of sleaze” over the Government.
At PMQs, he said: “It beggars belief that the Prime Minister can defend the Culture Secretary, because he wasn’t judging this bid, he was helping the bid by News Corporation.”
Mr Cameron claimed he was jumping on a “passing political bandwagon” having previously stood by the Leveson process but Mr Miliband said this was “totally pathetic”.
“He is the Prime Minister. If he can’t defend the conduct of his own ministers, his ministers should be out the door – he should fire them,” he said.
He added: “While his Culture Secretary remains in place, while he refuses to come clean on his and the Chancellor’s meetings with Rupert Murdoch, the shadow of sleaze will hang over this Government.”
News Corp’s attempt to buy the 61% of BSkyB it did not already own was dropped in July 2011 because of the hacking scandal before Mr Hunt made a final decision.