LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron defended his embattled culture minister on Monday, saying he had seen no evidence he had acted improperly in a scandal over News Corp’s failed attempt to take over British pay television operator BSkyB.
Cameron has resisted opposition demands for an immediate inquiry into the conduct of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt after allegations emerged of his close contacts with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media empire.
“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,” Cameron told parliament, referring to Hunt.
A slew of emails released last week appeared to show Hunt’s office as an enthusiastic supporter of the bid, contradicting his official role as an impartial judge of the deal’s impact on media plurality. Murdoch withdrew the $12 billion bid in July.
In a dramatic exchange in parliament, opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband asked Cameron why he had not started a probe into Hunt, who was responsible for overseeing the bid.
“The prime minister is defending the indefensible and he knows it. Protecting the culture secretary’s job .... and we all know why,” Miliband told Cameron, was sat next to Hunt throughout the raucous session.
“The culture secretary has to stay to protect the prime minister. The prime minister has shown today he is incapable of doing his duty, too close to a powerful few, out of touch with everyone else,” Miliband added.
The prime minister had to shout to be heard over the jeers. “Weak and wrong,” Cameron replied, ruling out an investigation.
Hunt’s departure would turn the spotlight onto the prime minister and his own once close ties with News Corp, scrutiny he can ill afford as his Conservative Party slumps in the polls after weeks of gaffes and policy blunders.
Cameron potentially faces further embarrassment as former Murdoch confidante and News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks prepares to reveal text messages and emails between herself and the prime minister, a former friend and part of the so-called “Chipping Norton” set.
The group includes Cameron, Brooks and other political and media elite who live in and around the well-heeled Oxfordshire town of Chipping Norton, giving rise to accusations of cronyism and suspicions that Britain is run by an exclusive clique.
Cameron says a judge-led inquiry into media ethics, known as the Leveson inquiry, should be allowed to examine the evidence.
That inquiry is expected to summon Hunt to give evidence in about three weeks, and Cameron has faced accusations that he is pre-empting its findings by saying he has “full confidence” in his culture secretary, a fellow Conservative.
Miliband and others accuse Cameron of a cover up, a charge that is gaining traction among the prime minister’s critics given that he has so far ruled out a separate probe into Hunt.
Critics argue that finding out whether Hunt broke the ministerial code is beyond the remit of the Leveson inquiry - a stance shared by the inquiry itself - but on Monday Cameron insisted it would not be a good idea to have a “parallel” probe.
Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith last week resigned after emails, released by Murdoch’s executive son James during his appearance at the Leveson inquiry, appeared to show that Hunt’s office had leaked confidential information to News Corp.
Cameron’s critics are incredulous that Smith, a junior official, acted alone in his contacts with News Corp on the BSkyB bid, one of the biggest in British media history.
The prime minister’s cosy ties with the Murdochs and News Crop ended after accusations last year that a News Corp-owned newspaper hacked the phone of a murdered schoolgirl, sparking a parliamentary inquiry, criminal investigations and arrests.
The parliamentary committee tasked with looking into phone hacking took evidence from Rupert and James Murdoch last year, and on Tuesday is set to publish its long awaited, and possibly politically incendiary, report.
“There’s continuing, ongoing pressure and at some point the boil is going to have to be lanced,” said Ivor Gaber, political journalism professor at London’s City University. “There is pressure building on them and it will continue on both the Murdochs and Cameron. It’s continuing to unravel.”
Additional reporting by Kate Holton Editing by Maria Golovnina