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Jeremy Hunt minion refuses to back boss's version of BSkyB story

By Oliver Wright

Jeremy Hunt was under mounting pressure last night after his most senior civil servant appeared to undermine the Culture Secretary's version of events surrounding the secret briefing of News Corp during its attempted £8bn takeover of broadcaster BSkyB.

Jonathan Stephens, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), refused 10 times to confirm that he “agreed” to let Mr Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith speak to Rupert Murdoch executives about the deal — as Mr Hunt claimed in Parliament.

The revelation adds to Labour Party suspicions that Mr Hunt may have overruled his Permanent Secretary to insist on a role for Mr Smith, who on Wednesday resigned over the affair, in the takeover talks. Mr Stephens repeatedly dodged the questions from MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee, to their clear irritation.

The DCMS issued a statement saying Mr Stephens was “aware” of the arrangement and was “content” with it — but the statement did not explicitly say he had agreed to it or authorised it.

In a further day of drama, it also emerged that:

  • Downing Street has gone to extraordinary efforts behind the scenes to prevent an independent inquiry into whether Mr Hunt (right) broke ministerial codes of conduct. The Cabinet Secretary made a private telephone call to Lord Justice Leveson within hours of the scandal breaking on Tuesday to lobby for Mr Hunt's case to be heard as part of the inquiry, allowing Mr Hunt to avoid facing an investigation
  • The broadcasting regulator Ofcom has escalated its inquiry into whether BSkyB is a “fit and proper” owner of a broadcasting licence. Ofcom has asked for documentary evidence relating to the phone-hacking scandal and could force the company to sell its existing stake in Sky TV.
  • Rupert Murdoch was accused by the News of the World's lawyer Tom Crone of making a “shameful lie” in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. Mr Murdoch had suggested that Mr Crone was involved in hiding the extent of the hacking scandal from senior executives.

In an attempt to increase pressure on the Government, Labour wrote to Mr Stephens last night asking the Permanent Secretary to confirm in writing that he “knew in advance” that Mr Smith was to be a contact point with News Corp, and also to confirm that he had approved the arrangement in advance.

The deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, also called for the publication of all text messages, emails and phone records between Mr Smith and the News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel relating to the BSkyB bid, and called for an inquiry into whether Mr Hunt broke the ministerial code.

Sources found it “inconceivable” that Mr Smith would have acted without Mr Hunt's explicit authorisation in his dealings with Mr Michel.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, had privately contacted Lord Justice Leveson on Tuesday to say the Government would like Mr Hunt's case to be heard as part of his inquiry.

This triggered accusations that the Government's most senior civil servant had tried to interfere with the inquiry.

No 10 was forced to admit that the Leveson Inquiry had no remit to rule on whether or not Mr Hunt broke the code.

Quotes

“Why is Jeremy Hunt still in his job? Because David Cameron has questions to answer, and Jeremy Hunt is, if you like, acting as a firewall, and if he goes the questions will then move to David Cameron's conversations with Rebekah Brooks, with James Murdoch and others.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband

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