Culture minister says Murdoch allegations are "laughable"

LONDON Wed Apr 25, 2012 4:31pm BST

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LONDON (Reuters) - The minister accused of giving Rupert Murdoch special access during the media tycoon's bid to increase his hold on Britain's television industry labelled accusations against him as "laughable" on Wednesday.

Jeremy Hunt, the culture minister who was last year tasked with reviewing Murdoch's $12 billion (7 billion pounds) plan to boost his stake in British pay TV operator BSkyB, is under immense pressure to resign after allegations emerged of his close contacts with Murdoch's News Corp media empire.

In a hearing into media ethics on Tuesday, Murdoch's media executive son James said Hunt had given News Corp special treatment during talks surrounding the government's decision on whether to allow the TV deal to go ahead.

"The idea I was backing this bid is laughable," a visibly flustered Hunt told parliament to roars of approval from his own Conservative Party and jeers of derision from the opposition Labour party, which has led calls for him to be sacked.

The furore is the latest blow to Prime Minister David Cameron's government after a torrid month in which he has lurched from crisis to crisis, garnering an embarrassing slew of negative headlines and raising questions over his leadership.

Speaking in parliament, Cameron said he gave his "full support" to his embattled minister and ruled out a separate investigation into his contacts with News Corp.

The row has already claimed the scalp of Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith, who resigned earlier on Wednesday.

Media pundits have portrayed the bombshell dropped by James on Tuesday as more evidence that his father is on the warpath after being vilified by Britain's once-fawning political establishment since allegations of phone hacking at Murdoch's newspapers turned the octogenarian's patronage toxic.

"Transcripts of conversations and texts published yesterday between my special adviser Adam Smith and a News Corporation representative have been alleged to indicate there was a back channel through which News Corporation were able to influence my decisions. This is categorically not the case," Hunt said.

Hunt was thrust into overseeing the News Corp bid for BSkyB when his predecessor Vince Cable was removed from the role after he was secretly taped indicating he would not allow the deal to go through because of his dislike of Murdoch.

(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Tim Castle, editing by Matt Falloon and Maria Golovnina)

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