Jeremy Hunt's top civil servant has refused to confirm the culture secretary's claim that he approved the decision to allow his special adviser to act as the point of contact between the department and News Corporation.
Appearing before the public accounts committee on Thursday morning, Jonathan Stephens, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's permanent secretary, was pressed ten times to explain his role in the affair.
Stephens was asked by MPs whether he authorised Adam Smith, Hunt's political adviser, to talk to News Corp at the time that the culture secretary was supposed to be acting as an impartial quasi-judicial adjudicator as to whether it should be allowed to buy BSkyB.
Defending himself on Wednesday, Hunt told MPs that Stephens had authorised Smith to speak to News Corp. "Adam Smith was a part of the process that was authorised by the permanent secretary," he said.
Labour has accused Hunt and his office of secretly helping News Corp in its efforts to take control of BSkyB, including giving it advance warning of statements to be made to parliament.
However Stephens refused to confirm that on Thursday morning, simply referring MPs to the resignation statement made by Smith when he said he his activities had gone "too far".
“While it was part of my role to keep News Corporation informed throughout the BskyB bid process, the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from the Secretary of State," Smith said.
Stephens told the committee: "I think I just need to stand on that without any implications being drawn form that whatsoever, being I have been given no notice of these questions."
Asked at least ten times by the MPs whether he had approved Smith's role, he avoided answering each time.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the committee, said: "It takes me aback that you would had approved the appointment of a special adviser to act as a channel of communication between one party[News Corp.] and the department, when department and secretary of state were playing this semi-judicial role."
Hodge said that while Hunt was responsible for the conduct of his advisers she was "astonished" that Stephens had approved of Smith talking to the "Murdoch empire".
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, Hodge said Stephens' refusal to confirm Hunt's account of what happend suggested he did not want to be blamed.
"What he did today was let Jeremy Hunt hang out to dry," she said.
"One of the clear question marks has on this is how on Earth could you logically allow a political official, which is what a special adviser is, to fulfil such a key role in what should have been a quasi-judicial process."
She added: "Having been a minster for years, I was astounded by Hunt's assertion in the House."
Following Stephens' appearance before the committee, a spokesperson for DCMS said the permanent secretary "did not feel it was appropriate to provide further information ahead of the department’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry".
"As Jeremy Hunt’s statement yesterday made clear, the permanent secretary was aware that Adam Smith was amongst a small number of individuals in the department who were in contact with News Corp and was content with that arrangement.
The spokesperson added: "As Adam Smith’s statement makes clear, the content and extent of his contact was done without authorisation, and were contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary.”