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Hunt: I won't quit over BSkyB row
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt defied Labour calls for his resignation following claims that he secretly backed News Corporation's bid to take over satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Mr Hunt insisted that he had conducted the process of deciding whether to green-light the BSkyB bid with "scrupulous fairness" and wrote to the Leveson Inquiry asking to be given an early date to give his side of the story in formal evidence.
In a dramatic development, the Leveson Inquiry into press standards released a 163-dossier of emails detailing contacts between the Culture Secretary's office and a senior executive at News Corp.
Labour said the documents showed that Mr Hunt failed to fulfil his quasi-judicial role in relation to the proposed takeover, which he had promised to carry out in a "fair and even-handed" way.
And they said that David Cameron also had questions to answer, after News Corp executive James Murdoch told the Inquiry that he and the Prime Minister had briefly discussed the BSkyB bid in December 2010 - days after Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his decision-making power on the takeover.
Downing Street insisted that the Culture Secretary still had the Prime Minister's full confidence.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband said Mr Hunt must resign and warned Mr Cameron he too had "questions to answer".
"I myself have said all politicians, including Labour, became too close to the Murdochs but this is in a completely different league," said Mr Miliband.
"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.
"We need to know what happened in those discussions. So there are questions for Jeremy Hunt to answer, there are also questions for David Cameron, George Osborne and the whole Government to answer."
In a statement Mr Hunt said: "Now is not a time for knee-jerk reactions. We've heard one side of the story today but some of the evidence reported meetings and conversations that simply didn't happen.
"Rather than jump on political bandwagon, we need to hear what Lord Justice Leveson thinks after he's heard all the evidence.
"Let me be clear my number one priority was to give the public confidence in the integrity of process. I asked for advice from independent regulators - which I didn't have to do - and I followed that advice to the letter.
"I would like to resolve this issue as soon as possible which is why I have today written to Lord Justice Leveson asking if my appearance can be brought forward. I am very confident that when I present my evidence the public will see that I conducted this process with scrupulous fairness."
Mr Hunt was given responsibility for the BSkyB takeover bid, which would have given News Corp full ownership of the satellite broadcaster, after Mr Cable was secretly recorded telling reporters he was "declared war" on the company's chairman Rupert Murdoch.
He said then that his main concern was "to ensure that I reach my decision in a fair and even-handed way which is transparent and ensures all concerns are properly considered".
And he denied claims he had been a "cheerleader" for Rupert Murdoch, saying: "Before the process, I had my views on Mr Murdoch like everyone has their views. Once I took on this quasi-judicial role things changed and then I was totally different.
"That was why I decided, because I had expressed views in the past, like many people have about the Murdochs and BSkyB, that it was important to get the advice of BSkyB and independent regulators and after consideration I followed that advice."
But Labour claimed that the cache of emails published at the inquiry revealed that Mr Hunt had given News Corp privileged access to information relevant to his decision and had misled Parliament about the extent of his contacts with the company.
The dossier includes scores of emails from Frederic Michel, who was then News Corp's director of public affairs in Europe, in which he updated executives including James Murdoch on the progress of the bid.
News Corp was seeking to buy the 61% share in BSkyB it did not already own, but dropped the bid on July 13 last year after public outcry over the revelation that the News of the World hacked murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone.
In one message Mr Michel detailed what the Culture Secretary would say to Parliament the next day, noting that it was "absolutely illegal" for him to obtain the information.
Another email, dating from January last year, reported Mr Hunt's belief that 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 that in fact this was shorthand for contacts with the Culture Secretary's office - usually his special adviser Adam Smith.
On January 24 last year, Mr Michel sent an email to James Murdoch outlining a statement Mr Hunt would make to Parliament the following day announcing that he intended to refer the takeover bid to the Competition Commission, but was delaying doing so while he considered proposed concessions from News Corp.
He wrote: "Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal...>!)"
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the Leveson Inquiry, suggested that News Corp was having "covert interactions" with Mr Hunt and that the company had obtained a "sneak preview" of his statement. But James Murdoch said he treated the "absolutely illegal" comment as a joke, adding that he expected Mr Hunt's advisers were also talking to other interested parties about the proposed BSkyB takeover.
In a flurry of messages on the day of the statement, Mr Michel assured Mr Murdoch that "JH believes we are in a good place tonight".
And on February 9, he wrote that he had managed to get a quick chat with Mr Hunt before he went to see the ballet Swan Lake, and told him to "show he had some backbone" by dismissing any objections regulator Ofcom might have about the takeover.
Mr Murdoch suggested this was actually a reference to a conversation with the Culture Secretary's special adviser, noting: "I think Mr Smith and Mr Hunt went to Swan Lake together."
On another occasion Mr Michel reported on friction within the Cabinet over Mr Cable's stance on the BSkyB takeover.
Referring to information provided by Rupert Harrison, special adviser to Chancellor George Osborne, he wrote on November 9 2010: "Confirmed tensions in the Coalition around Vince Cable and his current policy positions.
"Vince made a political decision, probably without even reading the legal advice."
Mr Jay asked: "Do you think it's appropriate, Mr Murdoch, that here you are getting confidential information as to what is going on at a high level in Government?"
Mr Murdoch replied: "What I'm concerned with here was the substance of what was being communicated, not necessarily the channel by which it was being communicated.
"Mr Michel's job was to engage with special advisers and at a political level with Westminster, to put it broadly. That's what a public affairs executive does."
The inquiry heard that Mr Michel wrote to Mr Murdoch on December 14 2010 describing the Culture Secretary's views about a recent letter about the proposed merger published by regulator Ofcom.
He said: "He (Mr Hunt) is pretty amazed by its findings, methodology and clear bias. He very much shares our views on it."
Just minutes later then-News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks emailed both Mr Murdoch and Mr Michel: "Same from GO (George Osborne), total bafflement at response."
But an Ofcom spokesman said: "We stand by our record of independent and objective analysis."
The inquiry also heard that James Murdoch met Mr Cameron 12 times while he was leader of the opposition, then had dinner with him at his country residence Chequers in November 2010, after he became Prime Minister.
But the most awkward revelation for the Prime Minister personally involved a Christmas dinner hosted by News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and attended by Mr Cameron and James Murdoch on December 23 2010 - just two days after Mr Cable was stripped of his responsibility for media takeovers.
Mr Murdoch told the Inquiry that he and Mr Cameron mentioned what had happened.
"He reiterated what he had said publicly, which is that the behaviour had been unacceptable, and I imagine I expressed the hope that things would be dealt with in a way that was appropriate and judicial," said Mr Murdoch.
"It was a tiny conversation ahead of a dinner where all these people were there, so it wasn't really a discussion."
Labour MP John Mann wrote to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood demanding an investigation of the comments, which he said contradicted earlier Downing Street assurances that Mr Cameron did not discuss the takeover bid with the Murdochs.