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'Sack Jeremy Hunt' petition attracts more than 45,000 signatures

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Jeremy Hunt MP

© Rex Features / Ben Cawthra

A petition calling for the sacking of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt following revelations about his department's alleged secret support for Rupert Murdoch's Sky takeover has attracted more than 45,000 signatures.

The minister yesterday resisted calls from the Labour party for him to stand down, although his special adviser Adam Smith did quit over the scandal.

The controversy broke during the evidence of James Murdoch, the former chairman of Sky, at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and standards on Tuesday.

A series of emails were read out from News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, a close adviser of James Murdoch, revealing that Smith had kept the firm continuously updated throughout the bid process, and even suggesting that Hunt shared News Corp's aims to complete the deal.

Smith has since said that he acted without the secretary of state's knowledge, while Michel has said that he never had any direct contact with Hunt.

News Corp lodged its first bid for the 60.9% of Sky shares it does not own in June 2010, but ultimately withdrew the offer in summer 2011 after a series of revelations about phone hacking at UK tabloid, the News of the World.

Labour's Ed Miliband today told the BBC that it "beggars belief" the culture secretary is still in a job, and noted that the ministerial code makes ministers responsible for the actions of their advisers.

David Cameron - The British Prime Minister celebrates his 45th birthday on Sunday.
However, David Cameron has given his "full support" to Hunt, and the Conservative party is thought to be behind the beleaguered minister.

But a petition has now been launched on the popular Avaaz website, calling on Cameron to "remove Jeremy Hunt from office immediately" over his alleged "collusion with the Murdochs over the BSkyB deal [which] has brought the government into disrepute". As of this afternoon, the petition has attracted 45,477 signatures towards its target of 50,000.

Avaaz was also involved in the protest campaign against News Corp's Sky bid, and the site alleges that the emails show Hunt felt it "crucial" to "weaken" the detractors.

A message with the petition says: "Explosive emails were released that show that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt schemed with the Murdochs to help them win the BSkyB deal. This is an outrageous breach of his public duties, but if we raise our voices now we can get him fired.

"Instead of properly scrutinising this deal, the emails show that Hunt set up a secret back channel to feed information to News Corp. One of the emails revealed that Hunt thought it was crucial to weaken Avaaz's campaign. We had them running scared! Now, let's use our power to get David Cameron to remove Jeremy Hunt."

It added: "This is the top story across the country right now, and Avaaz is the best placed community to finally put an end to this crooked collusion between the government and the Murdoch Mafia. Sign the urgent petition to remove Hunt and send this to everyone."

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, appeared at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics this morning for a second day of evidence.

He said that he was "surprised" by how long email contact between Frederic Michel and Jeremy Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith went on during the Sky bid.

But he said that Michel, News Corp's head of public affairs, had not done anything wrong in the contact.

"I didn't see anything wrong with his activities," said the 81-year-old media mogul. "Was I surprised it had gone on so long - there were so many emails? Yes."

Hunt has stressed that he acted with "scrupulous fairness" during the bid process, including involvement of regulators the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom in the review, even though it was not required by law.

However, Murdoch tellingly today expressed his belief that the bid would most likely have gone through if it was not for the phone hacking scandal, particularly the public outcry over the hacking of the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

In June 2011, Hunt had indicated that he was minded to approve News Corp's proposal to spin off Sky News as a separate company, in order to ease media plurality concerns about the deal.

This was despite still overriding concerns that the Sky takeover would have enabled Murdoch to control too much of the UK's media landscape. A month later the hacking affair broke, leading to News Corp dropping the bid.

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