The special advisor to Jeremy Hunt, who resigned over his relationship with News Corporation, has denied feeding the company an inside line on government thinking.
Adam Smith stepped down after a raft of emails and texts between him and Frédéric Michel, and between Michel and Murdoch, appeared to show an uncomfortably close relationship between the culture secretary and News Corp.
Under lengthy questioning by Robert Jay, Smith said he regretted the “flippant” tone of some of his texts to Michel and that he reached the “end of his tether” under the persistent lobbying.
But Smith denied a conspiratorial approach in which he fed the lobbyist information over and above acceptable levels.
He said he had ultimately offered his resignation because “the perception had been created that something untoward had gone on”. Smith said Hunt eventually told him that “everyone thinks you need to go”, and that he was “thinking the same thing already”.
Hunt’s ultimate objective
Jay repeatedly pushed Smith on the point that Hunt’s personal wish was to get News Corp’s bid through the regulatory process, and that Smith clearly knew this and was communicating it to Michel.
Smith denied the claims and said his only understanding of Hunt’s views on the bid was that the undertakings in lieu (UILs) - effectively News Corp’s proposal to spin-off Sky News - put forward were sufficiently robust to warrant their referral to Ofcom and the OFT.
Jay asked whether Hunt’s view was, then, merely one of “studied neutrality”?
“Slightly more than that,” Smith said. “He thought the UILs may mitigate the problems Ofcom had found [with the bid].”
Jay asked Smith: “Hunt’s ultimate goal was to avoid a CC (Competition Commission) reference, and you knew that didn’t you?”
To which Smith replied: “I don’t particularly think so, no.”
UILs under the spotlight
Jay also spent time grilling Smith about his comments on the UILs, which included the remark that “we can’t say they are too brilliant”.
Smith said Michel’s suggestion that the DCMS agreed that the UILs would mean “game over for the opposition”, was a “colourful explanation of the process”.
“I don’t remember saying game over but I can imagine a conversation along those lines,” he said.
Smith was asked whether he would agree Michel was “achieving revelations” from him that were greater than what had been achieved in an earlier meeting.
He replied: “I’m not sure I would. The points of substance match the minutes of the meeting of 20 January [between Hunt and News Corp].”
Smith accepted his relationship with Michel had initially been “warm and friendly” but that it had become frostier as News Corp did not get the progress it had been hoping for. “After six months of weekend calls I was getting frustrated,” Smith said.