DAVID Cameron has admitted he and other politicians were guilty of “too much cosying up” to Rupert Murdoch, as the media tycoon lifted the lid on the close relationship he enjoyed with Britain’s political elite.
• PM denies ‘sleaze’ charge
• Media tycoon reveals extent of his links to politicians
• Murdoch: ‘I have never asked a prime minister for anything’
• Murdooch holds Gordon Brown ‘in high personal esteem’
In another dreadful day for the Tory leader, the government also faced criticism over its plans to kickstart the economy as latest figures showed Britain had slipped back into recession.
Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was last night fighting for his political career after his advisor Adam Smith was forced to resign over allegations he aided Mr Murdoch’s News Corp company in its bid to take full control of BSkyB.
Labour said that evidence released by the Leveson Inquiry into media standards indicated that Mr Hunt had breached the ministerial code, and urged Mr Cameron to refer the case to his independent adviser on ministers’ conduct, Sir Alex Allen. In an emergency statement to the Commons, Mr Hunt insisted he had “strictly followed due process” in the way he handled the aborted takeover bid.
Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman said Mr Hunt had been “backing” rather than “judging this bid” and should resign. In heated exchanges during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), the Labour leader Ed Miliband said there was a “shadow of sleaze” across the government.
But Mr Cameron insisted the Culture Secretary was doing an “excellent job” and would give a “very good account of himself” to the Leveson Inquiry.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond was forced to defend the Scottish Government’s offer of help to News International in the BSkyB bid, claiming he had acted for Scottish jobs, not to win the backing of the Sun.
A day of drama in parliament saw Mr Cameron facing one of the hardest grillings he has ever received in PMQs, during which Mr Miliband dissected him on the state of the economy and the allegations surrounding Mr Hunt that blew up out of evidence submitted by Mr Murdoch and his son James to the Leveson Inquiry.
Mr Cameron said politicians from all parties had got too close to the media magnate.
“I think on all sides of the House there’s a bit of a need for a hand on heart,” he said. “We all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch.”
Jabbing his finger at the beleaguered culture minister, Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister should fire him.
“While his Culture Secretary remains in place, while he refuses to come clean on his and the Chancellor’s meetings with Rupert Murdoch, the shadow of sleaze will hang over this government,” he said.
The Labour leader reminded MPs of the close links enjoyed between Mr Cameron and senior members of the Murdoch empire, including horse riding with former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and making the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson his chief spindoctor in Downing Street.
Mr Miliband said: “It’s a pattern with this Prime Minister: Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and now the Culture Secretary.
“When is he going to realise it’s time to stop putting his cronies before the interests of the country?”
As Labour MPs waved goodbye to Mr Hunt, who arrived late at his position on the front-bench for the raucous PMQs exchanges, Mr Miliband said: “Lord Justice Leveson is responsible for a lot of things, but he is not responsible for the integrity of the Prime Minister’s government.”
He added: “It beggars belief that the Prime Minister can defend the culture secretary, because he wasn’t judging this bid, he was helping the bid by News Corporation.
“Two days before the statement to the House on January 25, the Culture Secretary’s office was not only colluding with News Corp to provide them information in advance, they were hatching a plan to ensure, and I quote, it would be ‘game over’ for the opposition to the bid.”
Mr Miliband was accused of jumping on a “passing political bandwagon” by the Prime Minister, having previously stood by the Leveson process.
Mr Cameron accused Mr Miliband of “flip-flopping” over his approach to the Leveson Inquiry, which he insisted should be allowed to run its course without being pre-judged.
The Prime Minister added: “The problem of closeness between politicians and media proprietors had been going on for years and it’s this government that’s going to sort it out.”
In a jibe at Mr Miliband he added: “I don’t duck my responsibilities, what a pity he can’t live up to his.”
The Labour leader said Mr Hunt and his office had been “providing a constant flow of confidential information” to News Corp.
Mr Cameron said it would “be wrong” to “step in and try and pre-judge” the Leveson process.
As the two traded verbal blows in the House of Commons, Mr Murdoch was giving the first of two days of evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.
The media mogul’s praise for the Prime Minister was not the endorsement Downing Street advisors may have wanted. Mr Murdoch said he was “extremely impressed” by Mr Cameron the first time he met him, especially the way he treated his children.
The tycoon said: “Mr Cameron, since his election as Prime Minister, I have met principally in social settings, where little of substance was discussed.
“I do recall that, shortly after his election, Mr Cameron invited me in for tea at No 10 Downing Street. He thanked me for the support of our papers.
“I congratulated him and told him that I was sure our titles would watch carefully and report whether he kept all of his campaign promises. The meeting lasted at most 20 minutes.”
But the tycoon denied any involvement in the appointment of former News of the World editor Mr Coulson as Mr Cameron’s communications chief in May 2007.
He said he had never discussed BBC licence fees with Mr Cameron, adding: “I had been through that with previous prime ministers and it didn’t matter what they said, they all hated the BBC and they gave it whatever they wanted.”
He also said he never spoke to Mr Cameron about Ofcom.
He told counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay QC: “You keep inferring that endorsements were motivated by business matters and if that had been the case, we would have endorsed the Tory party in every election. It was always more pro-business.”
In a reminder of his wider links with politicians Mr Murdoch said he had been impressed by Tony Blair for a long time and now regards him as a personal friend.