Jeremy Hunt came under pressure last night after his most-senior civil servant appeared to undermine the Culture Secretary's version of events surrounding the secret briefing of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation during its attempted £8bn takeover of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Jonathan Stephens, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, refused 10 times to confirm that he "agreed" to let Mr Hunt's special adviser, Adam Smith, speak to Murdoch executives about the deal, as Mr Hunt claimed in Parliament as he battled to keep his job. The revelation added to Labour's suspicions that Mr Hunt may have overruled his Permanent Secretary to insist on a role in the takeover talks for Mr Smith, below, who quit over the affair this week. Mr Stephens repeatedly dodged questions from MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee, to their irritation.
Last night, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said Mr Stephens was "aware" of the arrangement and was "content" with it – but did not explicitly say that he had agreed to it.
In other developments, it emerged that Downing Street has gone to extraordinary efforts to prevent an independent inquiry into whether Mr Hunt broke ministerial codes. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, 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.
Meanwhile, the telecoms regulator Ofcom escalated its inquiry into whether BSkyB is a "fit and proper" owner of a broadcasting licence. Ofcom has asked for evidence about the phone-hacking scandal and could force Mr Murdoch to sell his existing stake in BSkyB. In an attempt to heap pressure on the Government, the deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, also called for the publication of all text messages, emails and phone records between Mr Smith and a News Corp lobbyist, Frédéric Michel, relating to the BSkyB bid, and called for an inquiry into whether Mr Hunt broke the ministerial code.
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