Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has said accusations that he backed News Corporation's bid for BSkyB are "laughable" and "categorically" denied allegations of a "back channel" giving News Corporation the ability to influence decisions.
Hunt delivered a statement to the House of Commons today in response to evidence heard during former News International chairman James Murdoch's appearance before the Leveson inquiry yesterday (24 April).
Murdoch told the inquiry that News Corporation was "receiving feedback and information" via its public affairs channel relating to News Corporation's bid for BSkyB from the culture secretary's office, but denied the interactions were "covert".
The communications include a series of emails sent from News Corporation's head of public affairs Fréderic Michel and refer to contact with Hunt's office, with those after the date of 24 December 2010 relating to information he was "told by someone within Jeremy Hunt’s office, almost invariably his special advisor Adam Smith", as opposed to directly by Hunt.
Counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay QC yesterday questioned James Murdoch on whether some of the emails submitted to the inquiry suggest News Corporation was "getting insight into Hunt's current thinking" and the "current state of affairs".
Murdoch said there was "nothing inappropriate" about the interactions between News Corporation's public affairs channel and Hunt's office, adding that comments received were taken "with a grain of salt".
Smith, Hunt's special advisor, today announced his resignation, saying that while it was part of his role "to keep News Corporation informed throughout the BSkyB bid process, the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from the secretary of state".
Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman has called for Hunt to resign, saying: "In view of the evidence that has been adduced before the Leveson inquiry today, it appears that the secretary of state has fallen woefully short of the standards expected from him in his office and in the public interest.
"I believe that the right thing for the secretary of state to do would be to come to the house to offer an apology and tender his resignation."
In a statement issued last night, Hunt said: "Now is not a time for knee-jerk reactions. We've heard one side of the story today but some of the evidence reported meetings and conversations that simply didn't happen.
"Rather than jump on political bandwagon, we need to hear what Lord Justice Leveson thinks after he's heard all the evidence."
Hunt has also asked Lord Justice Leveson if his appearance before the inquiry could be brought forward.
Hunt today said he first saw the Michel communications yesterday and said he was not aware of the tone or volume of the communications.
In his statement to the House today Hunt insisted that in relation to the BSkyB bid he "strictly followed due process" and sought the advice of independent regulators.
He said the communications did not influence his decisions in any way, but added it is a "matter of huge regret to me that this has happened".
He outlined to the House four decisions he took in the process which he claimed were all "against what News Corporation wanted".
"The idea I was backing the bid is laughable".
In prime minister's questions, prior to Hunt's statement, prime minister David Cameron offered his "full support" for the culture secretary.
Cameron defended Hunt, saying he "sought independent advice at every stage of the bid" and "took advice at every stage".
Leader of the opposition Ed Miliband repeated calls for Hunt to step down, telling Cameron: "If he can't defend his ministers he must fire them."