David Cameron did become too cosy with the media, the former head of Britain's civil service said yesterday.
Gus O'Donnell, the recently retired Cabinet Secretary and a former press secretary for John Major, made the tacit criticism of the Prime Minister while appearing at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.
Lord O'Donnell, who served under three prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Mr Cameron – said: "I think the Prime Minister himself, the current Prime Minister, has said that he felt his relationships had got too close, and I agree with that."
After the phone-hacking affair erupted last July, Mr Cameron admitted that he and other politicians had allowed themselves to get "too close" to media proprietors and editors – but he stressed that he had been in contact with a wide range of media organisations, not just Rupert Murdoch's.
Lord O'Donnell said that members of opposition parties should have a different relationship with journalists than Government ministers. "You have much fewer resources, so you do not have big press offices and the like, so you do tend to make closer personal relationships with journalists. There tends to have been swapping of mobile phone numbers, all of those sorts of things," he said, adding that MPs should be "much more careful" once their party formed a government.
Early last year, Lord O'Donnell rejected complaints from Labour MPs that the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt should not be allowed to rule on News Corp's £7bn bid for BSkyB, on the basis that he had previously expressed support for Mr Murdoch.
The peer was asked about the exchanges between Adam Smith, Mr Hunt's special adviser, and News Corporation lobbyist Fred Michel. Mr Smith resigned last month after admitting that contact over the BSkyB takeover had become too close.
Lord O'Donnell said it was for ministers to authorise their special advisers' activities, but there was not likely to be a written record of instructions. In remarks that may be interpreted as being unhelpful to Mr Hunt, he added: "I would have expected the minister to be clear about what his special adviser should be doing."
He insisted that "keeping all parties informed about process is perfectly reasonable, but not getting into substance".
Lord Leveson yesterday ruled out taking action against the Independent on Sunday for publishing a story about Andy Coulson. It disclosed that Mr Coulson had not declared his shares in News Corp while working in Downing Street at the time of the bid for BSkyB.