Jeremy Hunt faces Rupert Murdoch collusion claims


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The Independent Online

Jeremy Hunt's job was in fresh jeopardy tonight amid claims he colluded with Rupert Murdoch's empire in a bid to prevent a public inquiry into phone hacking.

A newly-disclosed email from News Corporation public affairs executive Fred Michel said the embattled Culture Secretary wanted the firm to "guide his and Number 10's thinking" on the scandal.

It also boasted of a tip-off about an "extremely helpful" statement Mr Hunt was due to make to MPs on the BSkyB bid.

The revelation, in material disclosed to the Leveson inquiry by former News International boss Rebekah Brooks, will intensify demands for David Cameron to launch an independent sleaze investigation into Mr Hunt's behaviour.

Labour said the Prime Minister no longer had any "alibis" after Lord Justice Leveson made clear he would not rule on whether the ministerial code had been broken.

But a spokeswoman for Mr Hunt insisted that Mr Michel's only contacts were with his special adviser, Adam Smith, who has already resigned after admitting his relations with News Corporation were too close.

The Culture Secretary acted with integrity throughout and will "vindicate" his position when he gives his evidence to the inquiry, according to the spokeswoman.

The missive from Mr Michel to Mrs Brooks, dated June 27 2011, predicted accurately that later that week Mr Hunt would play down the impact of the phone hacking scandal on the BSkyB bid.

"He will be repeating the same narrative as the one he gave in Parliament few weeks ago," Mr Michel wrote.

"This is based on his belief that the police is pursing things thoroughly and phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues.

"It's extremely helpful."

The email stated that Mr Hunt wanted to "prevent a public inquiry" - instead suggesting that Parliament's Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions could carry out a wider investigation.

"For this the committee will need to come up a strong report in the autumn and put enough pressure on the PCC (Press Complaints Committee) to strength itself and take recommendations forward," Mr Michel wrote.

"JH is now starting to looking to phone hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10's positioning."

A month later reports emerged that Milly Dowler's mobile phone had been accessed, sparking a public outcry and leading David Cameron to launch the Leveson Inquiry.

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said: "People will be disgusted at the prospect of Jeremy Hunt and Number 10 colluding with News Corporation to avoid a public inquiry into phone hacking.

"Jeremy Hunt was not on the side of victims and their families. Instead, he wanted it swept under the carpet because he was straining every sinew to support News Corporation's bid for BSkyB."

Labour MP Chris Bryant, a phone hacking victim, added: "Lord Justice Leveson has made it clear that he will not rule on the Ministerial Code; neither Hunt nor Cameron have any alibis left."

But a spokeswoman for Mr Hunt insisted: "Jeremy Hunt will respond to this when he gives evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in due course. He is confident his evidence will vindicate the position that he has behaved with integrity on every issue.

"It has already been made clear that when Fred Michel has claimed in emails to be speaking to Jeremy Hunt that was not the case.

"On July 11 2011 Jeremy Hunt wrote to Ofcom for further advice about the impact of phone hacking on the BSkyB bid."