David Cameron insisted today that he had seen no evidence that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has breached the ministerial code of conduct in his handling of News Corp‘s bid for BSkyB.
In an emergency Commons statement, the Prime Minister said he was not going to set up a “parallel inquiry” into Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into media standards.
But he said that if evidence of a breach of the code emerged when Hunt appeared before the Leveson inquiry, he would refer the matter to his independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, or take action himself.
Cameron was forced to go to the Commons to face MPs’ questions after Commons Speaker John Bercow awarded Labour an urgent question.
He strongly defended the way Hunt had handled the takeover bid for BSkyB by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire.
He said that at every stage of the bid, Hunt had sought independent advice, even though he was not required to do so.
“He acted fairly and impartially and in line with the advice of his permanent secretary,” Cameron said.
“I have seen no evidence to suggest that, in handling this issue, the Secretary of State acted at any stage in a way that was contrary to the ministerial code,” he said.
Cameron said he had consulted Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and decided it was right to allow Lord Justice Leveson to conduct his inquiry and not to set a “parallel process” to establish the facts.
“What we have is a judge-led inquiry, witnesses required to give evidence on oath, full access to papers and records, cross-examination by barristers, all live on television,” he said.
“There is nothing this tough or this rigorous the Civil Service or the independent adviser could provide.”
Cameron said that he would not wait until the end of the Leveson Inquiry to take action if action was needed.
“If new evidence emerges from the Leveson Inquiry that the ministerial code has been broken I will either seek advice from Sir Alex Allan or take action directly,” he said.
Cameron went on: “The relationship between politicians and the media has been too close for decades.
“The Leveson Inquiry which this Government set up gives Parliament and politicians of all parties the opportunity to put this right for the future.
“Already we have introduced transparency about the meetings we have with the media. Anyone can see which proprietors or editors I meet, whether publicly or privately.
“Like other party leaders in our country for decades I have tried to convince media outlets to support the policies of my party and now my Government.
“But let me be clear, there was not and never has been any grand bargain between the Conservative Party and Rupert and James Murdoch.
“Indeed, look for one moment at the number of meetings that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had with Rupert Murdoch when they were prime minister.”
Miliband said if the Culture Secretary was “so clueless” about what had been going on in his department he should be sacked.
Claiming elements of the ministerial code had been breached, he accused the PM of “defending the indefensible”.
But a clearly angry Cameron said: “First of all, 15 years of secret meetings, pyjama parties, christenings and all the rest of it, and not one word of apology.”
He said the Labour leader was “weak and wrong” and accused him of “bad judgment” and “rotten politics”.
Referring to former Labour advisers who were forced to quit their roles, he added: “Can anyone remember anyone taking responsibility for Charlie Whelan? Can you remember anyone taking responsibility for Damian McBride?
“What a lot of self-serving double standards we have had from the party opposite,” he added.
The PM also rebuked Labour MP Chris Bryant for using unpublished, incorrect information about meetings with the Murdochs he had access to from the Leveson Inquiry.
He said: “While we are on the subject of people who say things before they should, I would have thought the honourable gentleman when he stands up in this House should make an apology.
“He stood up last week and claimed a whole series of facts about meetings I had had with Rupert Murdoch based on privileged access he had had to this inquiry, and the facts turned out to be wrong.
“A man of honour would apologise.”
Earlier today it emerged Cameron has been summoned to explain to MPs why he has not ordered a probe into Hunt.
Commons Speaker John Bercow approved an urgent question tabled by Labour demanding to know why the issue of Hunt’s links to News Corporation has not been handed to independent adviser on ministerial interests Sir Alex Allan.
Downing Street confirmed that the Prime Minister – who had been due to visit Milton Keynes campaigning for local elections – will respond personally in the Commons.
On Sunday, Cameron offered qualified support to his Cabinet minister, who is facing calls to resign over his handling of the BSkyB deal.
The premier insisted he did not currently believe the ministerial code had been broken – although he also hinted that an independent investigation could take place after Mr Hunt has given evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.
He also said Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith had been right to resign over “too close, too frequent” contacts with News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel.
But on Monday morning, Labour leader Ed Miliband sought to broaden the controversy by saying it “goes to the character of the Government”.
The decision by Mr Bercow could fuel tensions with Number 10, amid sniping about bias and grandstanding.
Labour believes it is the first time a prime minister has been summoned to the House since urgent questions were introduced a decade ago.
A senior party source said: “He should have not been dragged. He should be doing the right thing.”
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