Like father, like son, Rupert and James Murdoch gave a masterclass in political spin and craftsmanship, wilfully deflecting Lord Leveson’s spotlight away from their own personal involvement in the corruption and deceit at News International and, most dramatically, throwing blame onto the shoulders of the government.
Murdoch Jnr began in front of Leveson, facilitating the exposure of Jeremy Hunt’s apparent ministerial impropriety and therefore throwing the pressure and culpability back into Whitehall. While the government’s reaction was to hurriedly buy more time behind the scenes, his father, happy that media attention was focused on yet another internal governmental scandal, consolidated the Murdoch’s position by providing a relatively unspectacular account of his experience of the phone hacking scandal from which no major headlines emerged. Furthermore he heaped pressure onto another high profile politician, Alex Salmond, again deflecting the media spotlight away from himself, his son, and his business. Rupert Murdoch was never going to allow his influence over the British political scene to evaporate overnight.
…guilty of breaking the ministerial code…
In short, Murdoch won, leaving the government in disarray. Now, Jeremy Hunt is in the firing line, with an ever increasing number of calls for his resignation after emails between his former special advisor, Adam Smith, and News Corporation’s senior public affairs executive, Frederic Michel, suggest the Minister for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport did not maintain quasi-legal impartiality towards News Corp’s bid for BSkyB in 2011.
Adam Smith’s subsequent resignation on account of going “too far” in his relationship with Michel is problematic, given that the immediate government response to the email revelations was to discredit the exaggerations of Michel as those of an over-zealous PR executive. The resignation implies that Michel was right about something. Essentially, it becomes a question of whether Smith’s resignation is being used to cover Hunt, and for that matter David Cameron from further allegations, or whether he truly is responsible for conducting affairs “without authorisation from the secretary of state”. Neither scenario has a positive outcome for Jeremy Hunt: if the latter is true, not only is he guilty of breaking the ministerial code that requires Ministers to be responsible for the “management and conduct of special advisers”, but serious questions are raised over his leadership within his department.
…if he has maintained honesty throughout…
Smith’s resignation certainly implies that the process was not “conducted scrupulously fairly”. There is no doubt that he had developed a close relationship with Frederic Michel; whether Jeremy Hunt knew the extent of this relationship is irrelevant. He is responsible for the actions of those in his department and should therefore be held to account, regardless of whether the communication with News Corp did not materially affect the end result of the bid for BSkyB.
The fact that the government has refused to launch an independent investigation into the allegations against Hunt implies they have something to hide. As Simon Hughes said, an independent inquiry must be in Hunt’s interest; if he has maintained honesty throughout, he will be vindicated. However only David Cameron can refer the matter to Sir Alex Allen, the independent advisor on ministerial conduct, for further investigation. Given the well documented extent of the Prime Minister’s relationship with the Murdoch empire in the past, there are clearly reasons why he has not yet done this.
…Chris Grayling can be used as cannon fodder…
Jeremy Hunt is currently fulfilling the role for David Cameron that he himself used Adam Smith for. As long as he remains in his ministerial position, he is buying time for the Prime Minister, shielding him from unwanted attention over his relationship with the Murdochs. In the current state of affairs, Cameron can pursue a reactive policy, one step ahead of Hunt’s interaction with the media and opposition. In the meantime, individuals such as Chris Grayling can be used as cannon fodder to spread the rhetoric on Question Time and the like that only “half the story” has been told.
We await part two with suspense. The revelations exposing the relationship between News International and government has already claimed a number of high profile careers, not least Rebecca Brookes, Andy Coulson and now Adam Smith. Dare we speculate how many more will join them?