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Jeremy Hunt clings on as SpAd quits over News Corp emails

Culture Sec's adviser 'went too far' in BSkyB bid affair

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UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt came under intense pressure to quit today following James Murdoch's revelations at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics.

He told MPs at lunchtime in Parliament that he did not want "to jump on a political bandwagon" but added that he did want to "set the record straight" on News Corp's failed merger with BSkyB. Hunt had been tasked with scrutinising the takeover procedure.

"Throughout I have strictly followed due process," he told a packed House of Commons.

He claimed that yesterday was the first time he had seen cosy emails between his special adviser Adam Smith and News Corp's director of public affairs. The exchanges were published by the inquiry on Tuesday to coincide with Murdoch Jnr's appearance that day.

Hunt said it was "categorically not the case" that his handling of the BSkyB merger was unduly influenced by News Corp. It was claimed that Hunt quietly supported the Murdoch-run corporation's bid to buyout the remaining 61 per cent of BSkyB it didn't already own, which was eventually abandoned.

This morning Smith resigned from his post ahead of Hunt making his lunchtime statement. Prime Minister David Cameron threw his support behind his Culture Sec during a feisty PMQs session in the Commons.

Cameron said that Hunt "has my full support for the excellent job that he does". He continued: "In judging this important bid the Culture Secretary sought independent advice at every stage, although he did not need to."

The emails released yesterday showed in detail the secret talks that went on regarding News Corp's move to takeover BSkyB, which it finally ditched last July at the height of the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

Messages between News Corp top flack Frédéric Michel and Smith appeared to strongly indicate that Hunt was backing the corporation's attempt to own BSkyB outright. Smith, who some observers labelled as the Culture Secretary's fall guy, said ahead of Hunt's statement to the Commons:

While it was part of my role to keep News Corporation informed throughout the BSkyB bid process, the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from the Secretary of State.

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.

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.

On 13 July 2011, News Corp withdrew its bid to acquire the remaining chunk of BSkyB following immense political pressure from MPs who on that day had been expected to vote in favour of a motion calling on Murdoch to ditch the planned merger.

Before that, Murdoch had faced days of extremely damaging phone-hacking and police payment allegations against his UK-based newspaper publishing company News International, which led to the axing of his most profitable title - the News of the World.

Murdoch Snr was today being grilled by Lord Justice Leveson over press standards. His son, James, spoke at the same inquiry yesterday, which triggered the release of the email transcripts between Michel and Smith.

During the Prime Minister's Questions session, Labour leader Ed Miliband chided Cameron for failing to sack Hunt over his alleged back-room chats.

"The shadow of sleaze will hang over this government," Miliband sniffed.

The PM later admitted that - for everyone in the House - there was "a bit of a need for hand on heart" over MPs' relationships with Murdoch. ®

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