Who are these ‘Special Advisors’ anyway?

So, Adam Smith, Jeremy Hunt’s ‘Special Advisor’ (or ‘SPAD’ as they are known in Westminster) has fallen on his sword following allegations of impropriety against his former boss in the way he handled the takeover bid by News Corporation of BSkyB.

The evidence obtained by the ongoing Leveson enquiry shows a huge amount of e-mail traffic between Adam Smith and Frederic Michel who was News Corporation’s Director of Public Affairs in Europe during the News Corporation proposed bid for BSkyB.

The sheer amount of e-mails between Adam Smith and Frederic Michel alone rings alarm bells.

This was supposed to be a ‘quasi-judicial‘ role that Jeremy Hunt was undertaking, but the volume of conversation between Smith and Michel is a cause for concern as who in their right mind would not think that sustained and multiple e-mail contacts on a daily basis would not give rise to suspicion of impropriety, even if there was no impropriety to speak of.

Any information required by Jeremy Hunt about what could have been one of – if not the – largest media deals in UK history should have been formally requested of News Corporation and not batted about as part of informal chatter between a Special Advisor and a PR head.

It’s surely not the role of a Special Advisor to give daily progress reports about anything to anyone but his employer?

And I’ve not even mentioned apparent reference to Smith and Hunt being invited to a Take That concert with Frederic Michel.

Compare this with the fact that Vince Cable and his SPAD, Giles Wilkes, actively avoided communication with the Murdoch empire so as to avoid controversy.

Michel considered and tried multiple different tactics to meet with Cable. These included

  • asking him to meet with a newspaper editor under the pretence of other business,
  • contacting other Liberal Democrat MPs who might act as a go between to induce Cable to meet with News Corporation representatives,
  • trying to contact Nick Clegg to ‘insist’ that Cable meet with News Corporation regarding the BSkyB bid.

All of which failed, but once Cable was removed from the BSkyBid proposal process following his ‘declaration of war‘ with the Murdoch Empire, the way was apparently left open for lots of communication between big business and Government.

There are lots of lessons to be learnt here. Many obvious, some less so. My concern in all this is? Who are these unelected Special Advisors? What qualifies them to be Special Advisors? How was it possible for a ‘rogue’ advisor to spend so much Taxpayer time and money passing information and apparently co-ordinating actions with a commercially driven organisation?

How can it be that Adam Smith – in his role as Special Advisor to Jeremy Hunt – could potentially have skewed the playing field towards News Corporation (intentionally or not!) in its planned bid for BSkyB? He was passing on the names of other people and processes that could, in their turn, have been courted by Frederic Michel.

Adam Smith was one Special Advisor. It’s clear that he had a lot of knowledge of how the process of judging the BSky bid proposal was going. To what extent do other Special Advisors have that kind of knowledge and power to influence a decision right under the nose of an elected MP?

There are other special interests quite apart from commercial ones. Let us take, for instance, the current debate around the Communications Capability Development Programme. Could you imagine the impact a ‘rogue’ advisor may have on that? An advisor who eases the way between the instincts of security forces – to apparently collect more data on more people – and the instincts of Liberal Democrat MPs, who must not only be impartial, but be seen to be impartial.

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