Watchdog to probe UK minister in News Corp row

LONDON Mon May 21, 2012 3:52pm BST

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LONDON May 21 (Reuters) - Britain's beleaguered media minister Jeremy Hunt, under fire over his contacts with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, came under renewed pressure on Monday after a parliamentary watchdog said it would investigate allegations he had failed to declare donations from media firms.

Labour has already called for his resignation amid allegations he was too close to News Corp as he deliberated whether to allow it to buy the portion of pay TV group BSkyB it does not already own.

The donations were the cost of "networking events" at which media i ndustry leaders were able to meet politicians. They were ma de while the Conservatives were in opposition before the May 2010 election and amount to some 27,000 pounds.

The sponsoring companies included BSkyB, according to entries that Hunt's departmental colleague Ed Vaizey listed in the register of MPs' financial interests.

Vaizey declared in the register that nine events between May 2009 and March 2010 were to "enable the Conservative frontbench team (Vaizey and Hunt) to meet sector leaders from the arts and creative industries".

However, corresponding entries declaring the meetings were not made under Hunt's name.

A spokeswoman for Hunt said he had only attended three of the events, hosted by advertising firm M&C Saatchi, a media club and a digital radio lobby. She said the ommission had occurred because of an administrative error and that Hunt had now entered them in the register.

The office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said it had initiated an inquiry, following a complaint by a Labour MP.

Hunt, a rising star in the Conservative Party, has resisted calls to step down in recent weeks but pressure on him to go is likely to mount when he makes a scheduled appearance at an inquiry into media ethics in coming weeks.

Correspondence between his office and News Corp appeared to reveal leaks of confidential information to the media conglomerate, and appeared to show that Hunt's office was an enthusiastic supporter of the BSkyB deal.

The minister was meant to be an impartial judge on the deal's impact on British media plurality, a key factor in deciding whether it should go through. Murdoch already owns several British newspapers, in addition to his stake in BSkyB.

Hunt has denied any allegations of impropriety.

Adam Smith, Hunt's special adviser, has resigned over the issue, and is also due to give evidence to the inquiry soon.

The wide-ranging Leveson inquiry has taken testimony from several high-profile witnesses about the relationship between the press and the public, politicians and the police. (Additional reporting by Tim Castle)

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