Prime Minister David Cameron was last night resisting demands to fire one of his ministers following evidence from James Murdoch about leaks from the Government during News Corp's controversial bid to take over British satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband said the evidence showed that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was the final arbiter of whether the takeover should be allowed, had given “advice, guidance and privileged access to the News Corporation” and acted “as a back channel for the Murdochs”.
In more than six hours of intense cross-examination before the Leveson inquiry into the media, Mr Murdoch strongly defended his company's right to approach politicians to push its agenda. He said he saw nothing wrong with frequent behind-the-scenes information his company had allegedly received from Mr Hunt's office.
Mr Hunt was acting in a quasi-judicial role as the minister who would decide whether the bid for BSkyB was appropriate in terms of media plurality.
The inquiry was told that at one time Mr Murdoch received news that Mr Hunt was frustrated that his advisers said they should not meet in private to discuss the issue.
Mr Murdoch sent a reply, “You must be f-g joking. Fine, I will text him.”
Mr Miliband last night demanded Mr Hunt's resignation: “If he refuses to resign, the Prime Minister must show some leadership and fire him.”
Mr Hunt's aides denied the claims, saying evidence presented to the inquiry was inaccurate and that meetings and messages that had been claimed had never happened. They said Mr Hunt planned to ask Justice Leveson if he could appear before the inquiry to defend himself as soon as possible. Mr Cameron said Mr Hunt had his full confidence.
The evidence related to extracts from 163 pages of emails Mr Murdoch had received from Fred Michel, News Corp's director of public affairs for Europe during the Sky takeover bid. The emails detailed alleged communications with Mr Hunt, many of them through Mr Hunt's adviser Adam Smith, and on some days running to half a dozen exchanges.
But Mr Hunt's aides claimed Mr Michel had exaggerated the degree of contact he had with the minister's office. Mr Hunt had not spoken to Mr Michel daily and was willing to make his phone records available to confirm this, they said.
Claims in the emails included:
*That Mr Michel had obtained information about a statement Mr Hunt was about to make on the bid
*That Mr Hunt “said we would get there in the end and shared our objectives”
*That Mr Hunt said he wanted Mr Murdoch “to understand he needs to build some political cover on the process”
News Corp dropped the takeover bid last year after it became caught up in a publicity firestorm over the News of the World's hacking of the phone of a murdered schoolgirl.
Mr Murdoch strongly defended the right of News International to lobby politicians to advance its interests, saying that this was what all large companies did. “It was entirely reasonable to try to communicate with all relevant policymakers to try to communicate the merits of what we were proposing,” he said.
He several times denied that News had ever offered a politician a “quid pro quo” of favourable editorial coverage in return for political favours. This included the first minister for Scotland, Alex Salmond, who had apparently asked Mr Murdoch to “smooth the way” for the Sun newspaper in Scotland to support Scottish nationalism.
Mr Michel wrote to Mr Murdoch, “I met Alex Salmond's advisers today. He will call Hunt whenever we need him to.”
Mr Murdoch said he could categorically deny that the two matters were linked: “There was absolutely no [such] News Corporation policy. I wouldn't do business like that.”
Former Liberal Democrat MP and Hacked Off activist Evan Harris told the BBC there should not have been secret discussions with the minister making the decision. “It's no help to Jeremy Hunt that James Murdoch doesn't see it was ethically dodgy… Just one of those emails would be a smoking gun to have [Mr Hunt] consider his position. There are 160 pages of those emails.”
Mr Harris suggested the Prime Minister might fear he could not afford to set a precedent by sacking Mr Hunt because “there may be more ministers involved in the sort of thing Jeremy Hunt was doing”.
Karen Kissane is Europe correspondent for Fairfax Media.