Britain's culture minister has denied having inappropriate contacts with Rupert Murdoch's media empire in testimony before a public inquiry, as pressure continues to mount on Prime Minister David Cameron's government over the issue.
Jeremy Hunt, appearing before the Leveson media standards inquiry on Thursday, admitted that he was "sympathetic" towards Murdoch's US-based News Corporation's failed bid to control British satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Despite evidence of phone and text communications with Murdoch's son, James, in which Hunt appeared to be favouring News Corporation, the minister insisted that he showed no bias whatsoever after he was appointed by Cameron to make a decision on whether the bid should proceed.
"It was widely known that I was broadly sympathetic towards the bid," said Hunt, who is the secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport.
"I, broadly speaking, had the view that BSkyB was already controlled by the Murdochs so I didn't think there was a change in plurality, but that due process had to be observed," he told the inquiry in London.
The inquiry heard that before being appointed to decide on the $12.2bn bid, Hunt had sent a text message to James Murdoch congratulating him on winning European Union approval for the takeover.
"Great and congrats on Brussels, just Ofcom to go!" Hunt texted to James Murdoch, referring to the EU decision and a decision yet to be taken by Ofcom, the British media regulator.
News Corporation eventually abandoned the bid in July 2011 after a phone-hacking scandal erupted at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which he subsequently closed.
Cameron launched the Leveson inquiry in response to the scandal.
Calls to resign
Before the scandal, Cameron had asked Hunt, who is from the prime minister's Conservative Party, to judge whether the bid for BSkyB would threaten media plurality after Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of the role.
Cable, a member of the Conservatives' coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, was removed from the position after he told undercover journalists that he would do everything in his power to block the bid as part of a "war" on Murdoch.
Hunt then apparently lobbied the government to ensure that Cable's successor would be more amenable to the takeover bid.
"Cld we chat about Murdoch Sky bid? Am seriously worried we are going to screw this up," Hunt said in one text to George Osborne, the finance minister.
Osborne responded that he hoped Hunt "liked the solution", an apparent reference to the decision to put Hunt in charge of the bid.
The Leveson inquiry has uncovered dozens of light-hearted text messages between Hunt and French News Corporation lobbyist Fred Michel, whom Hunt called "mon ami" and "daddy".
Hunt told the hearing on Thursday that that was because their wives had both given birth in the same hospital at around the same time.
One month before he was appointed to adjudicate on the bid, Hunt privately wrote to Cameron saying that blocking the takeover would harm the UK's media sector.
Once viewed as a possible successor to Cameron, Hunt has faced calls to resign over his role.
Cameron himself is facing renewed pressure after Andy Coulson, his ex-media chief and a former News Of The World editor, was charged with perjury on Wednesday.
BSkyB, meanwhile, now faces an inquiry by regulators into whether it is a fit and proper licence holder.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|