The SNP claimed last August that they were being perfectly open and above board about their dealings with the Murdoch Empire when they released details, supposedly, of all their administration’s meetings with all media. At the time, Stewart Hosie said:
“The SNP is leading the way in transparency over meetings with the media. The SNP Government has published the most transparent list of meetings between ministers and the media and is the only Government to publish our correspondence with News Corporation. All of it shows that everything was perfectly proper and reasonable, and about promoting Scotland.”
The remainder of that article talked about how the SNP was putting in a Freedom of Information Request about the Labour Party’s dealings with Murdoch.
A month before, on 11th July, the Scottish Liberal Democrats had put in an FOI request of their own, asking for details of all meetings between Scottish Ministers and Officials and News International Representatives. The reply received in September (copied below) directs them to the disclosures made in August.
That’s all well and good, and it allowed us all to express our astonishment at the number of times Scottish Ministers had met Murdoch associates.
Except we now know different, don’t we?
That was in February 2011. Strangely, that meeting between Geoff Aberdein and Frederic Michel is not documented in the SNP’s open and transparent disclosure. This is a meeting at which the offer was made that Salmond would call Hunt “whenever we need him to”. Aberdein had also been sent to try to manipulate a tv debate ahead of the Scottish elections to the form suiting the SNP. The SpAd and the Public Affairs guy had clearly each brought a back scratcher to the meeting.
So, what else haven’t they told us?
At a very minimum, they now need to publish details of all contact, in whatever form between SpAds and News International.
Adam Smith, Jeremy Hunt’s adviser, had to resign because he was effectively passing insider information about the quasi-judicial process to an interested party. Geoff Aberdein was not in the same situation but he was offering the services of the First Minister of Scotland, pitching him in as a cheerleader for Murdoch with the apparent quid pro quo at that time being a mere hour on Sky News in the format they wanted. Sky News, of course, was one of the channels involved in the bid. It doesn’t matter that neither phone call nor debate took place. The fact that such things were agreed in the first place was at the very least reprehensible.
Today’s Independent on Sunday says that Jeremy Hunt misled Parliament three times, one in March 2011 and twice last week.
That article provides compelling reason, if there wasn’t before, for an inquiry into whether the Ministerial Code has been broken. I hope that our Ministers within the Government are trying to talk sense into a recalcitrant PM. The Government should be bending over backwards to do the right thing. Look what’s happened when Liberal Democrat Ministers have been embroiled in controversy. David Laws resigned within 24 hours, although I have huge sympathy for his situation and wish he could have kept his job. Vince Cable had responsibility for the BSkyB takeover removed from him and handed to someone who had equally strong views, although on the other side of the argument. The Tories, on the other hand, tried to shore up Liam Fox for far too long when it became clear that his position was untenable, and now refuse to conduct even the most basic inquiry into Hunt’s behaviour. Liberal Democrats shouldn’t be tarnished by this – but we are because Nick Clegg went along with the absurd position that Leveson would sort it all out. Nick would have been better advised to say nothing.
I expect that it’s only a matter of time before Hunt resigns. The longer it takes, the worse it’s going to be and the more incomprehensible the decision not to institute an inquiry will appear.
Alex Salmond’s decision to brazen this one out, gambling that the Scottish people will see it all as a Holyrood bubble argument, has huge risks. His argument that it was all about Scottish jobs is spurious in the extreme. His questionable association with the rich and famous, along with his apparent nonchalance about really getting in there and tackling the underlying causes of poverty is damaging to his reputation and his claims to be on the side of ordinary Scots. He knows he’s on dodgy ground on this, otherwise why would he have been all over the place when Willie Rennie tackled him
before even the most recent revelations. Is it really ok to have your First Minister play down the News International role in phone hacking to ingratiate himself with media moguls who might say something favourable about him? The most disappointing thing for me is that Alex Salmond doesn’t see that one company owning so much media is harmful.One company able to promulgate its own views through owning multiple newspapers and tv channels is unhealthy – particularly when you look at how they do it in the US. Fox News, anyone? The whole episode shows me that Alex Salmond, doesn’t have a liberal bone in his body. I wonder if he’s thought about what controls to secure impartiality, broadcasting through an election for example, he would put in place in an independent Scotland. I think we should be told, frankly.
The Murdochs have now managed to compromise two current Governments as well as the previous Labour Government, right to the very top. Coming on top of MPs’ expenses, this doesn’t do much to restore people’s faith in politics and the political process. The challenge for Liberal Democrats within the Government is to make sure that things like lobbying reform (though what do you do when a Government minister turns effectively into a corporate lobbyist?) and party funding are sorted as well as Freedom of Information both north and south of the border strengthened. We need to make ordinary people feel that we are bringing them into the loop, not keeping them outside a bubble.