UK Politics

Labour seize on Jeremy Hunt BSkyB 'admission'

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Media captionJeremy Hunt: 'Discussions the prime minister had on the BSkyB deal were irrelevant'

Labour have seized on remarks by the culture secretary as an "admission" David Cameron had discussed the BSkyB takeover bid with News International.

Mr Cameron faced repeated questions on the issue earlier and told MPs he had had no "inappropriate conversations".

But Jeremy Hunt said later that "the discussions the prime minister had on the BSkyB deal were irrelevant".

Labour's Ivan Lewis said the PM had previously "refused point blank" to confirm conversations took place.

"The prime minister now has far more questions to answer," he told the BBC.

Mr Hunt's aides later said he had been talking about discussions in general - rather than specific discussions with News International executives.

News Corporation's bid for BSkyB - since withdrawn amid calls from all political parties in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal - was controversial.

It had been thought that it was on track to be approved, after the government said it was minded to accept assurances that Sky News would be spun off as a separate company - rather than refer it to the Competition Commission.

Several Labour MPs attempted to pin Mr Cameron down on what, if anything, he had discussed with News International executives such as Rebekah Brooks about the deal.

During repeated questions he did not deny outright ever mentioning the bid - but insisted he had had no "inappropriate" conversations about it.

'First admission'

One MP even asked if he had mentioned the word "BSkyB" to Mrs Brooks or Rupert or James Murdoch - which Mr Cameron greeted with an exasperated sigh.

And he insisted he had taken himself out of the decision-making process entirely - and that his Labour predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had enjoyed a closer relationship with the Murdoch empire than him.

But in a later debate, Mr Hunt appeared to confirm that conversations had taken place, telling MPs: "The discussions the prime minister had on the BSkyB deal were irrelevant.

"They were irrelevant because the person who had the responsibility... the person who was making this decision was myself.

"I was making it on my own. This was not a matter of collective responsibility, this was a quasi-judicial process."

Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw noted it was "the first occasion in six hours of debate where there has been any admission the prime minister had any discussion whatsoever about BSkyB".

But Mr Lewis said Mr Hunt's comments were important - because the decision had been meant to be in his hands alone, free of any influence from the prime minister, and entirely transparent.

He said Mr Cameron should publish the dates and nature of any conversations that did take place: "And then we can make a judgement about whether they influenced Jeremy Hunt's decision-making process."

"Jeremy Hunt did not refer this matter for an independent inquiry to the Competition Commission which is what we wanted all along - he hung on to the decision making process in quite an unusual way - and that's why, throughout this process, people have questioned its transparency and independence

"What he has said tonight just fuels that suspicion and concern that it hasn't been independent at all."

He questioned how Mr Hunt would know about the prime minister's conversations - if they had never spoken about the issue.

A spokeswoman for Mr Hunt told the BBC he was not specifically referring to discussions with Rebecca Brooks or other News Corp executives, but had included comments the prime minister had made in public, suggesting that News Corp should abandon the bid.

The spokeswoman said Mr Hunt had no information about any discussions the prime minister had had on the issue.