By JILL LAWLESS and MEERA SELVA, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers granted a reprieve Wednesday to the embattled culture minister, ruling that he should not be investigated over allegations that he favored the bid by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to take control of a satellite broadcaster.
But the vote split the two parties in Britain's coalition government, with the Conservatives backing Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the junior Liberal Democrat party abstaining on the opposition-sponsored vote in the House of Commons.
The motion calling for Hunt to be investigated for a breach of the Ministerial Code was defeated 290-252.
In a pointed rebuke to the Conservatives, Deputy Prime Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, had asked his lawmakers to abstain on whether Hunt should be investigated by a standards watchdog over News Corp.'s effort to take full control of BSkyB. Murdoch's media empire already holds a 39 percent stake in the lucrative broadcaster.
Hunt's adviser stepped down after messages he had sent to a News Corp. lobbyist were made public at a U.K. inquiry into media ethics. The opposition Labour Party claims than Hunt, too, secretly aided News Corp.'s bid — a claim that both Hunt and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron deny.
Relations between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, coalition partners since 2010, have become strained over disagreements on austerity measures, political reforms and Britain's position on Europe. The vote on whether to back Hunt, who also has responsibility for the London Olympics, highlights how the two parties differed in the way they dealt with Murdoch.
Cameron told lawmakers Wednesday that the Conservatives and Labour had both had close relationships with Murdoch's media over the years, but that Liberal Democrats had kept their distance. He said their decision to abstain "is to make that point."
The parliamentary debate is the latest twist in Britain's long-running phone hacking scandal, which exploded last year when it emerged that reporters at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid had eavesdropped on the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and people thrust into the public eye.
Murdoch abandoned his bid for BSkyB amid the scandal, which has rocked his media empire and triggered three police investigations in which more than 40 people have been arrested. It also prompted Cameron to set up a judge-led inquiry into media ethics, where details of Hunt and his adviser's relationship with News Corp. were first revealed last month.
The House of Commons debate came as Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International, Murdoch's British newspaper unit, appeared in court on charges of attempting to cover up evidence of phone hacking. She was granted bail at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London until a court appearance next week.
Brooks, 44, was charged last month with three counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice — an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Prosecutors say she removed boxes of material from the News International archive and tried to conceal documents, computers and other material from police.
Brooks, who edited the News of the World between 2000 and 2003, denies the offenses.
Her' husband Charlie Brooks, along with her personal assistant, her chauffeur, and two News international security personnel also were granted bail Wednesday until a hearing at Southwark Crown Court on June 22.
Murdoch closed down the News of the World last year due to the phone hacking scandal, which also forced the resignations of several top Murdoch executives.
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